In Profile: Harvey Anderson

Professor Harvey AndersonProfessor Harvey Anderson Why are 70 per cent of children healthy, while the other 30 per cent suffer from a host of health problems, such as obesity or malnutrition? Today, scientists know that many factors — including socioeconomics, genetics, and lifestyle — play a crucial role in lifelong health. For Professor Harvey Anderson, who served as the inaugural Executive Director of the Centre for Child Nutrition and Health from 2014 to 2016, there is still far more to be understood about what makes a healthy child.

“There is an important distinction between focusing on children’s health versus children’s disease,” says Anderson. “The purpose of our work is to gather more evidence demonstrating what happens when things are going ‘right’ — why some children are healthy when others are not.”

The collective and interdisciplinary nature of work at the Centre will lead to a better understanding of how nutritional, environmental and societal factors affect children’s health. Anderson wants to find comprehensive solutions that are only possible when experts from different fields come together.

Throughout his research career, Anderson has focused on several major aspects of human nutrition. In the 1970s, he helped develop the first amino acid solution that is still used by surgeons for intravenous feeding today. He also championed the benefits of mothers’ milk for premature infants, paving the way for a better understanding of nutrient deficiencies at different stages of prematurity.

“When I was first entering the scientific world, there was a notion that we already knew everything there is to know about nutrition — all the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fat, proteins, etc. — and in some sense, it was a dead science,” says Anderson. “What we grew to appreciate since is the relationship between nutrients and metabolism. Your response to a particular fat, protein, or carbohydrate impacts your body in many different ways. It can either keep you healthy or lead to a chronic disease.”

The role of proteins and carbohydrates in nutritional support and the regulation of metabolism has been a key area of Anderson’s research. “The structure of the proteins, the timing of their release, how they function in your intestine — all these produce different effects in our bodies,” he explains. “Some can tell your body that you are full more quickly. Others help you regulate your blood cholesterol, insulin, and glucose levels.”

This variety of nutritional effects, as well as the diversity of feeding and eating behaviours, provides many areas for future research. Anderson points out that there are many questions still unanswered: How does a mother’s diet affect her child? What are the implications of certain diets imposed on children by their parents? Should our breakfasts be higher in protein?

“I see the Centre doing a lot of work in these areas. It will help us to create evidence on the different components needed for the sustained health of kids. This will lead to better policy, prevention of chronic disease later in a child’s life, as well as useful advice for the modern family.”

Anderson also hopes that the Centre’s work will help nutrition get a more prominent place across medical education curricula. In the past, many of today’s health-care leaders — from Lynn Wilson to Michael Dan — took Anderson’s undergraduate nutrition course. He also oversaw a great number of leading researchers in nutritional sciences during their graduate studies.

“I never want my students to work in isolation. I always tell them it is to their advantage to co-publish studies, learn new skills, and get insights from their colleagues. If you are serious about science, build your research toolbox!”

Similarly, Anderson thinks that partnerships are essential to ensuring sustainability of the Centre’s ongoing work, and to achieving the greatest impact in child health and development. “I am lucky to live in a time when the University’s leadership realizes the importance of engaging in partnerships, not only among our academic departments, but also bridging relationships between the government, industry, and the University. I am delighted that we are going to have the new facility and framework to answer some of the pressing questions in childhood nutrition.”