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In 2023, several interdisciplinary projects received seed funding from the Institute for Preventive Health (i4PH). Annemieke Groenenboom has interviewed researchers from four seed funding projects: what are they researching, and how did they start up their interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research? Stay tuned to learn more about the projects and dive into the ins-and-outs of interdisciplinary collaborations (audio in Dutch).

First up, Natal van Riel (TU/e) about their interdisciplinary project: Personalised Dietary Advice.

“Eat according to the wheel of five ” has been the dietary advice for Dutch people since the 1950s. Yet, we are increasingly gaining weight and the number of lifestyle-related diseases is rising. For more effective results, dietary advice needs to be more precise and personalised, according to Natal van Riel (TU/e) and his colleagues from TU/e, WUR, and UU. With seed funding from the EWUU alliance, they are working on personalised dietary advice.  

Dietary advice is often based on averages, while the effects of nutrition can vary greatly between individuals. For example, people with diabetes respond differently to a plate of pasta than people without diabetes. Additionally, it often proves challenging to apply dietary advice in daily life. 

The research project 

In their project “Personalised dietary advice for human and planetary health,” Lydia Afman (WUR), Hannah Hauptmann (UU), and Natal van Riel (TU/e), are investigating how dietary advice can be made more precise and personalised: what is best for an individual to eat, and at what time? After all, your energy expenditure on the couch is different than during exercise. Afman brings expertise in human nutrition, Van Riel in algorithms and computer models, and Hauptmann in recommender systems. 

“The ultimate goal is to develop digital twins of individuals,” says Van Riel. “In such a virtual copy, you can run simulations without burdening the person, primarily to map out the effects of food on individuals. This requires a lot of data about the individual, combined with mathematical algorithms and models.” 

The approach 

Van Riel explains, “We collect this data through measurements on humans, such as through blood samples. In this project, our focus is on measuring blood glucose levels, because the technology for this already exists and allows for continuous monitoring. By analysing the data and integrating it into existing simulation models, the models become more personalised and increasingly accurate representations of the individual.” 

“Using these simulation models, other scenarios can be calculated as well,” continues Van Riel. “For example, if someone experiences a glucose spike from eating a peanut butter sandwich. Because we know the composition of that food product, we can calculate which other products have similar nutritional values but won’t cause a spike. In a very short time, the algorithm can compute up to 1,000 alternatives, and also check if those alternatives are available in the supermarket where this person shops. This makes the advice personalised and easier to adopt.” 

“To prevent the end-user from being overwhelmed with 1,000 alternatives, we utilise a recommender system. This translates all calculations from the model into clear advice, tailored to individual dietary needs. In addition, it is also suitable for companies looking to develop or test healthy food products.” 

Seed Money 

With seed funding from the Institute for Preventive Health, part of the EWUU alliance, the team conducted initial studies over the past year and further developed their approach in a TKI grant application. This resulted in a €432k grant for further research, which also examines taste preferences and the environmental impact of food. Postdoc Anouk Gijbels (WUR) coordinated this process and built consortia with companies. 

Interdisciplinary Collaboration 

“Van Riel says, ‘The seed funding was the catalyst for forming a complementary interdisciplinary team. Afman and I have been collaborating for years, but i4PH advised us to involve UU as well. Consequently, Hauptmann joined the team with her expertise in recommender systems. This is highly valuable because the impact of such technologies lies on the user side. You have to reason from the needs of the end-user, not from the technology, as engineers sometimes do. How do you ensure a product that truly benefits the end-user? These are the questions you shouldn’t save for the end of the process; you should start with them. That’s exactly what we’re doing now, thanks to the interdisciplinary approach.'”