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An Introduction to Stable Isotope Techniques in Nutrition Assessment

Following the IUNS International Congress of Nutrition in 2017, the decision was taken to create a course on the topic of stable isotope techniques, and the eNA was delighted to subsequently work with the Nutrition Section of the IAEA to do so. The IAEA has 171 Member States and is part of the wider United Nations system; it is the world’s centre for cooperation in the nuclear field and seeks to promote the safe, secure and peaceful use of nuclear technologies. Stable isotopes are widely used as safe and non-harmful tracers for the measurement of a number of human biological states. As such they can contribute to improved assessment of nutrition interventions – supporting progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 3. The stable isotope method of doubly-labelled water analysis for example, is widely considered the gold-standard for measuring energy expenditure in free-living individuals.

The course instructor is Dr Victor Owino, a Nutrition Specialist in the IAEA’s Nutritional and Health-Related Environmental Studies Section in the Division of Human Health. His work focuses on supporting Member States to apply stable isotope techniques to design and evaluate nutrition interventions that target all forms of malnutrition. The course covers three main applications of stable isotope techniques for nutrition; the assessment of body composition, energy expenditure, and breastfeeding practices.

The development of the course

The idea developed after the African Nutrition Society invited the IAEA to participate at the 7th Africa Nutritional Epidemiology Conference (ANEC 7) held in Marrakech, Morocco, October 9 – 14, 2016. The theme of the conference was ‘Nutrition dynamics in Africa: opportunities and challenges for meeting the sustainable development goals’. Dr Owino’s keynote presentation titled ‘Using stable isotope techniques in nutrition assessments and tracking of global targets post-2015’, was eventually published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society in 2017, and noted that concerted advocacy for the wide adoption of the techniques remains a huge challenge. The need for high quality curricula to train African nutritionists was identified as being urgent. Dr Owino subsequently agreed, alongside others, to lead the first round of development of curricula that can be accessed freely by African nutrition students.

Upon return to Vienna, Dr Owino presented the idea of developing a short introductory e-learning course on stable isotope techniques based on existing IAEA on-line resources to Dr Cornelia Loechl, the Head of the Nutrition Section. Dr Loechl approved work to start immediately and the first draft was submitted to eNA just before the 8th ANEC in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in October 2018. The course links directly to the e-learning modules on the IAEA Human Health Campus ( and leverages the wide reach of the eNA platform to make available educational materials to more nutrition professionals in Africa and beyond. Dr Owino commented:

“By attending this course, participants will learn about techniques to measure body composition, energy expenditure and breastfeeding practices in a non-invasive and more accurate manner compared to standard approaches. I believe that this course will inspire young African nutrition professionals to look beyond anthropometric measurements and to understand the underlying metabolic mechanisms that relate to what they are taught in formal classes.”