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International collaboration to address food related health inequalities in Indian populations in the UK and India

26 November 2010

The Institute of Food Research, an Institute of BBSRC, is leading a new research collaboration to investigate food-related health inequalities in Indian populations in the UK and India. At the inaugural meeting of international scientists in Mysore, they identified issues of over- and under-nutrition as well as food allergies and asthma.

The meeting was made possible through an India Partnering Award from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The collaboration is led by Professor Clare Mills from the IFR and the research consultation includes scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Leeds in the UK. In India collaborators are from the Agricultural University of Hisar, the University of Mysore, Asthma Allergy Associates in Mysore, St Johns Research Institute in Bangalore and the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderbad.

Some diet-related conditions have a disproportionate effect on the health of Indian populations and other South Asians, especially in urban areas. Obesity affects 55 million people in India, which is five per cent of the population. Associated with this, diabetes is on the rise and Indians have a higher risk of developing the condition than Caucasians. Also related to obesity, cardiovascular disease develops 10 to 15 years earlier in Indian populations than Caucasian.

As for under-nutrition, iron deficiency is prevalent and coexists with other deficiencies such as in vitamin A, which can lead to age-related blindness and lung impairment. As a result of low sunlight exposure, vitamin D deficiency is particularly common in Indian and other South Asian individuals living the UK. It compromises not only their health but also that of their children. It can cause neonatal hypocalcaemia (low calcium levels in the blood), long terms effects on bone density, and has links with allergy, asthma, type I diabetes and susceptibility to infectious diseases.

Self-reported asthma and associated allergic diseases have risen in India by 50% every five years from 1997 to 2007, with a higher prevalence in urban compared to rural areas. Diet is likely to play a particularly important role as there are suggestions that prevalence rates remain low in those who retain the lifestyle of their country of origin.

"There are real benefits to be gained by linking research efforts between the UK and India so as to tackle these health inequalities," said Professor Clare Mills.

"While some genetic factors might put south Indian populations at particular risk of developing these conditions, all are strongly influenced by environmental factors and are potentially preventable."

The opening meeting provided a platform for an agreement on several research priorities. It is expected that this research consultation will provide new insights into the mechanisms through which food can promote health. Evidence-based approaches that are currently lacking will be made possible, such as dietary advice to help prevent these conditions, including maternal diet during pregnancy, lactation and weaning.

The workshop in Mysore was supported by the British High Commission in India.

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