Differences in diet appear to contribute substantially to the burden of disease in populations, and therefore changes in diet could lead to major improvements in public health. This is predicated on the reliable identification of causal effects of nutrition on health, and unfortunately nutritional epidemiology has deficiencies in terms of identifying these. This is reflected in the many cases where observational studies have suggested that a nutritional factor is protective against disease, and randomized controlled trials have failed to verify this. The use of genetic variants as proxy measures of nutritional exposure-an application of the Mendelian randomization principle-can contribute to strengthening causal inference in this field. Genetic variants are not subject to bias due to reverse causation (disease processes influencing exposure, rather than vice versa) or recall bias, and if obvious precautions are applied are not influenced by confounding or attenuation by errors. This is illustrated in the case of epidemiological studies of alcohol intake and various health outcomes, through the use of genetic variants related to alcohol metabolism (in ALDH2 and ADH1B). Examples from other areas of nutritional epidemiology and of the informative nature of gene-environment interactions interpreted within the Mendelian randomization framework are presented, and the potential limitations of the approach addressed.
Keywords: Epidemiological methodology; Genetic epidemiology; Mendelian randomization; Nutritional epidemiology.