SNP10: What Are Stable Isotopes? How Are Tracers Used in Nutrition Research?

In Podcasts by Danny LennonLeave a Comment

This is a ‘Nutrition Science Explained’ episode. These episodes are exclusive to Sigma Nutrition Premium. To listen to the full episode and access the transcript, you must subscribe to Sigma Nutrition Premium.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Further Reading
  3. Transcript (Premium Subscribers Only)

Listen to a preview of the episode here:


Stable isotopes have been used as tracers in human nutritional studies for many years. But what are they? Why do we use ‘tracers’ in nutrition studies? And what are some practical examples?

A chemical element can have different forms or ‘isotopes.’ These different isotopes have the same atomic number and position in the periodic table but have different atomic masses and physical properties. An isotope that is not radioactive is said to be ‘stable’.

In physiology and metabolism research, stable isotopes are used as ‘tracers.’ As the name implies, it allows us to ‘trace’ the fate of compounds, thus giving a very detailed insight into the metabolism of nutrients and the regulation of many disease processes.

In this episode, Dr. Alan Flanagan explains what stable isotope tracers are, how they are used to answer nutrition science questions and some examples that you may come across.

[Note: This is the third episode in our series called “Nutrition Science Explained”, in which members of the Sigma team will take a concept commonly mentioned in discussions about nutrition science, explain what it is, give more background context, and highlight important aspects to know. The goal is to aid listeners in having a deeper understanding of other episodes when such concepts are mentioned.]

Image from: Atherton et al., 2016

Further Reading

  1. Nutrition Research Methodologies (chapter 17 – Stable Isotopes in Nutrition Research by Umpleby and Fielding)
  2. Davies, 2020 – Stable isotopes: their use and safety in human nutrition studies
  3. Stable isotope tracers in muscle physiology research – Philip Atherton, Matthew Brook, Ken Smith, & Daniel Wilkinson


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