HOW do sex and ethnicity affect the impact of diet and disease?

According to nutritionists, we don’t really know – and we need to find out.

A two-day summit beginning in Dundee today will examine the gaps in scientific knowledge about how genetic factors effect the way our bodies react to the food we eat.

Experts from Europe and America will take part in the Nutrition Society’s spring conference at Abertay University.

While it is accepted that our diet plays a fundamental role in maintaining health and preventing disease, much of the scientific research around this fails to consider the role of sex, ethnicity and genetics.

Conference organisers say there is now “increasing evidence” that these factors have a “significant impact” on how our bodies absorb, distribute and metabolise nutrients.

Meanwhile, they argue that most public health approaches to nutrition are “generic”, with little attempt to adapt these to suit individuals.

Experts attending the specialist event hope their work will change this, and convince researchers to improve the way they carry out vital testing.

This, it is hoped, would help prevent illness related to poor nutrition in so-far overlooked populations.

The programme includes sessions on type 2 diabetes in African-Caribbean populations, and those of South Asian descent in Europe.

The condition is closely linked to diet and lifestyle and is a major public health concern, with 500,000 people in Scotland thought to be at “high risk” of developing the problem, according to the Scottish Government.

While South Asian people account for just 4% of the total UK population, they make up around 8% of all diabetes cases and are thought to be six times as likely to develop the condition as Europeans.

Meanwhile, one study has suggested as many as half of all Afro-Caribbean people in the UK could develop type 2 diabetes – which can cause fatigue, weight loss and other symptoms – by the age of 80.

The conference will also look at the way sex hormones effect the metabolism of fatty acids, amongst other subjects.

Internationally renowned Professor Bettina Mittendorfer, from Washington University in the US, and Dr Christine Morand, of the National Institute for Agricultural Research in France, are amongst those set to speak.

Lead organiser Dr Karen Barton, public health nutrition lecturer at Abertay University, said: “This conference will bring together speakers and delegates from across the world for a stimulating two days of discussion and debate around the complex area of inter-individual variation in responses to nutrition and impacts on health.

“It is important that we learn more about such variation in a bid to enable us to design better research studies to investigate how we can prevent diet-related disease.

“We welcome delegates to Abertay University for what promises to be an excellent conference.”

The conference follows the publication of the book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, who appeared at the Aye Write! festival in Glasgow on Saturday to discuss her findings on the lack of scientific data about women’s health.

Arguing that women have been treated as “atypical” or “niche” by researchers, she told the audience at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall that information gathered on men is seen to be “the default”, with most cell studies carried out on male material and little done to determine the impact of the menstrual cycle on the efficacy of antidepressants and other medications.

Speaking today, Mittendorfer’s event at the Dundee conference will look at the physiological underpinnings for differences in the risk of metabolic disease in men and women.