How Do Diet and Exercise Affect Health and Disease? Clues From Our Blood and Gut

By Hakon Heimer

3 December 2020. Health and disease, like all aspects of human biology, are affected by what we put in our bodies and how we live our lives. But it is difficult to trace the exact ways in which factors such as diet or exercise impact us.

A study of unprecedented scope − combining data on small molecules in the bloodstream, the bacteria of the gut microbiome, and human genetics − now provides researchers with a reference map to explore how these “lifestyle” factors impact our health.

The international collaboration, published in the December 2020 issue of Nature, was led by researchers at the Waisman Institute in Israel. A number of Nordic researchers and their study participants contributed to the study via the Diabetes Research on Patient Stratification (DIRECT) consortium, a project of the Innovative Medicines Initiative of the European Union.

“Overall, our results reveal potential determinants of more than 800 metabolites, paving the way towards a mechanistic understanding of alterations in metabolites under different conditions and to designing interventions for manipulating the levels of circulating metabolites,” conclude the authors.

Nature and nurture and health

Banana apple weight“One of the key things that this paper shows is that certain features of the modifiable environment, like coffee consumption or how much people exercise and the types of diets they consume, all have detectable signatures within the microbiota and the metabolome,” said Paul Franks of Lund University, who along with Oluf Pedersen of the University of Copenhagen was one of the senior authors of the paper.

The study partitions some metabolomic and metagenomic data into features that are under more environmental or genetic control, said Franks. It also provides a molecular readout of exposures such as diet or activity.

These mechanistic explanations of how modifiable features of the environment influence health and disease might help with the design of interventions and could have particular value for prevention components of precision medicine.

Other major contributors to the DIRECT consortium from the Nordic region include the research groups of Søren Brunak and Torben Hansen of the University of Copenhagen, and Markku Laakso at the University of Eastern Finland.


A reference map of potential determinants for the human serum metabolome.
Bar N, Korem T, Weissbrod O, Zeevi D, Rothschild D, Leviatan S, Kosower N, Lotan-Pompan M, Weinberger A, Le Roy CI, Menni C, Visconti A, Falchi M, Spector TD; IMI DIRECT consortium, Adamski J, Franks PW, Pedersen O, Segal E.
Nature. 2020 Dec;588(7836):135-140. Epub 2020 Nov 11. PMID: 33177712