Nutrition Research Highlights 5|2014

Keeping consumers and stakeholders up to date

5 | 2 0 1 4

This newsletter is published by the Nutrition & Health Group of the JRC’s Institute for Health and Consumer Protection. Regularly surveying the top nutrition and medical journals, we select the most recent news on nutrition research, relevant to current societal debates or policies. These are then summarized as “News” items or presented as a “View”, comprising an analysis and expert opinion. Enjoy your reading!






For better health, don't (dis)miss the bus

5.1What if our commute to work using forms of transport, such as public transport, walking or cycling could have a positive impact on our health? The health benefits of an active lifestyle are well known, and active commuting is linked to higher overall individual physical activity levels (1). A recent study carried out in the UK on 15 777 participants (1), found that both men and women who utilised active modes of transport as well as public transport had significantly lower body fat and Body Mass Index (BMI)* compared to those using private transport. While similar observations have been made before (2) a surprise finding from this study (1) is that both those in the active commuting group and those using public transport had lower BMI. One explanation for this finding could be that participants in the public transport group got to/from the selected mode of transport in an active way, e.g. walking or cycling (1).

Encouraging an initial move towards public transport use rather than active commuting, may be an easier transition for commuters. In addition to the environmental benefits it may bring, this study shows that public transportation can also yield important population health benefits. These include effects on overweight and obesity but likely also on psychological well-being as recently observed (3). Yet, in Europe (4), private motorised transport is still the most popular mode of transport. 53% of citizens use the car daily, followed by public transport (22%), walking (13%), and lastly, cycling (7%). Can we help shift this trend? (FM)  

* BMI (Body Mass Index) is a measure of body mass, obtained from a person's weight (kg) divided by their height squared (m2). A healthy bodyweight is defined as a BMI of 18.5-24.99 kg/m2; overweight as ≥25 kg/m2; and obesity as ≥30 kg/m2. WHO BMI Classification

  1. BMJ 349, g4887 (2014)

  2. Plos One 8, e69912 (2013)

  3. Prev Med S0091-7435(14)00314-4 (2014)

  4. Flash Eurobarometer; Future of Transport- Analytical Report (European Commission, 2010)

Image: 'City People Walking In Skytrain Station In Motion Blur'. Courtesy of: Naypong. Source:

One BMI, many cancers - where do we stand?

5.2The World Health Organization (WHO) lists cancer as one of the leading causes of death, with 8.2 million deaths globally in 2012 (1). Several cancer risk factors are modifiable; a high Body Mass Index (BMI)* is one such 'preventable' risk factor.

A recent study (2) looked at the association of BMI with cancer in great detail. Using a cohort of approximately 5.2 million individuals,  researchers investigated to what extent BMI was linked to the development of 22 of the most common cancers in the United Kingdom (2). No study so far had sought to undertake such a large scale systematic classification of patterns of risk between BMI and the most common cancers. Indeed, the study highlighted an association between ten** of these cancers and BMI and the authors estimate that a mean population increase in BMI of 1 kg/m2 could result in almost 3 800 new diagnoses of these ten cancers every year. The study also shows that the strength of the association between BMI and cancer differs according to cancer site, which indicates that different mechanisms (or a combination of these) are associated with different cancer sites and different subgroups of patients.

Overall, these results have important implications. On one hand, they reinforce the role that diet and lifestyle have on cancer prevention and call for more public health measures that take these into consideration (see the most recent European Code Against Cancer (3) and our recent report on mapping of dietary strategies for cancer prevention (4)). On the other hand, the study highlights the heterogeneity of cancer and cancer types. Despite (and because of) the complexity, different types of cancer and the various risk factors that characterise them should be analysed and dealt with individually. (FM)

* BMI (Body Mass Index) is a measure of body mass, obtained from a person's weight (kg) divided by their height in metres squared (m2). A healthy bodyweight is defined as a BMI of 18.5-24.99 kg/m2; overweight as 25-29.99 kg/m2; and obese as ≥30 kg/m2 (WHO BMI Classification).

** Gallbladder, kidney, cervical, thyroid, leukaemia, liver, colon, ovarian and postmenopausal breast cancer.

  1. IARC (2012)

  2. Lancet 384, 755-65 (2014)

  3. IARC (2014)

  4. Mapping dietary prevention of cancer in the EU28. JRC Science and Policy Report, 2014

Image: 'Cool model showing apple'. Courtesy of: imagerymajestic. Source:

Diet considerations for healthy ageing

5.3We are all living longer! Whilst this is good news, ageing is also seen by some as a burden, whereby frailty, physical limitations and chronic diseases are just a few examples of stigma surrounding ageing and older adults. But wouldn't it be great if we could turn this around, to ensure everyone has the opportunity to age healthily and actively and to enjoy life when we retire?        

Diet has an important role to play to improve the quality of life of older people and enable them to stay healthy for longer, as shown in the recent report by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) (1). The report highlights the importance of maximising the intake of key macro- and micro-nutrients from natural food sources in older adults to prevent undernutrition and related functional decline. Evidence from observational studies suggests that the Mediterranean Diet* (MD), a lifestyle that is traditionally practiced in Mediterranean regions and encompasses both healthy diet and regular physical activity, may increase longevity and reduce the risks of a range of age-related diseases**. Even when the principles of MD are applied to non-Mediterranean European regions, the health benefits can still be seen (1). There are other whole diet and lifestyle approaches practiced in parts of the world, such as the region of Okinawa in Japan and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, that are also found to be associated with longevity (2). Interestingly, despite geographical and ethnic differences between these populations, they share certain characteristics. Firstly, their diets mainly consist of natural plant-based foods, including legumes, fruit and vegetables, and are low in meat (3). Secondly, physical activity is an integral part of daily living. Furthermore, those who live a long life tend to have strong social support networks, good stress management, and a sense of purpose and belonging (2).

Diet is not the only answer to healthy ageing, but it is one important piece to the complex 'jigsaw' of ageing. Learning from these examples of exceptional longevity, there is hope that we can age healthily and actively and to enjoy life as we grow old. (TNM)

* The Mediterranean Diet includes a high consumption of plant foods (e.g. fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds), complex carbohydrates such as (wholegrain) bread and pasta, moderate consumption of fish, eggs, poultry and dairy products (e.g. cheese and yoghurt), low consumption of red and processed meat, low-to-moderate consumption of red wine with meals and using olive oil as the main source of fats instead of animal fats. It covers a range of key nutrients, e.g. protein, mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids, dietary fibre, antioxidant vitamins, minerals and polyphenols, and it is low in saturated and trans fats and added sugars.

** Age-related diseases include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers and cognitive decline such as Alzheimer's disease.

  1. The Role of Nutrition in Active and Healthy Ageing for prevention and treatment of age-related diseases: evidence so far. JRC Science and Policy Report, 2014

  2. Buettner D (2008) The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

  3. Proc Nutr Soc 73(2), 249-59 (2014)

Image: Caucasian man and granddaughter eating watermelon. Courtesy of: Corbis

The European Code Against Cancer

5.4This October saw the launch of the 4th edition of the European Code Against Cancer (1). The code aims to inform the public about simple, but potentially life-saving actions that can reduce the risk of developing cancer. It proposes twelve recommendations which together could halve cancer-related deaths in Europe (2): promotion of beneficial activities such as physical activity, healthy diets and following specific vaccination and screening programmes on one hand and advice against behaviours such as smoking, alcohol abuse or excessive sunbathing on the other.

There is strong evidence that people who follow a healthy lifestyle based on similar cancer prevention recommendations have a lower risk of cancer, compared with people that don't follow the recommendations (3). The risk reduction was attributed to having a normal Body Mass Index (BMI)* (see also our accompanying article), reducing the consumption of fast foods  and  sugar sweetened beverages, engaging in moderate physical activity (30 minutes) daily, eating mainly plant-based foods, limiting intake of red and processed meats as well as limiting alcohol consumption (3). On a side note, breastfeeding is not only beneficial for the baby but also to the mother, since women who breastfeed their babies for prolonged periods have a lower risk of developing breast cancer later in life.

While these recommendations actually target the individual, the Code also notes that "successful cancer prevention requires these individual actions to be supported by governmental policies and actions." In this regard, the Joint Research Centre has recently published a report (4) on the measures proposed throughout Europe related to dietary prevention of cancer – worth reading if you are looking for inspiration on how to implement these recommendations in your community and further include dietary preventive measures in the fight against cancer. (PM)

* BMI (Body Mass Index) is a measure of body mass, obtained from a person's weight (kg) divided by their height in metres squared (m2). A healthy bodyweight is defined as a BMI of 18.5-24.99 kg/m2; overweight as 25-29.99 kg/m2; and obese as ≥30 kg/m2  WHO BMI Classification

  1. European Code Against Cancer website – about the Code

  2. European Code Against Cancer – 12 ways to reduce cancer risk

  3. European Code Against Cancer – Healthy Body Weight

  4. Mapping dietary prevention of cancer in the EU28. JRC Science and Policy Report, 2014

Image: Jogging. Source:



    September – October 2014

    Nutrition Research Highlights is a bi-monthly publication prepared by the Nutrition Team of the DG-Joint Research Centre, Institute for Health and Consumer Protection. Sandra Caldeira, Tsz Ning Mak, Petros Maragkoudakis, Theodora Mouratidou, Flaminia Mussio, Stefan Storcksdieck genannt Bonsmann and Jan Wollgast contributed to this issue.

    The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Commission.

    © European Union, 2014. Reproduction of articles (excluding photographs) is authorised, except for commercial purposes, provided that the source is mentioned.

    ISSN: 1831-9467


    European Commission - Joint Research Centre
    IHCP (Institute for Health and Consumer Protection)

    Email: IHCP, Nutrition
    Website: IHCP > Public Health > Nutrition