Sacrificing Food In The Name Of Nutrition
It takes dedicated researchers and disciplined volunteers to fuel nutrition studies, which lead to important discoveries about food and health.
Boston [04.02.07] Eric Evans selected steak for his last meal before beginning a six-month study at Tufts, during which nutrition researchers would dictate every crumb he consumed. “I knew that was going to be it for a while,” Evans told The Boston Globe. Like many other study participants, the financial adviser agreed to follow a specific diet in order to aid nutrition researchers in their quest to uncover connections between food and health. Volunteers are a vital component of nutrition studies, which can be demanding of not only participants, but also researchers.
“[Volunteers] must pledge to never indulge their weaknesses and to always clean their plates, and, along the way, yield samples of blood, stool, or urine to measure the consequences of a particular vitamin or a whole diet,” the Globe reported. The newspaper added that “dietitians spending months perfecting research menus that are both palatable and scientifically sound.”
At Tufts’Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, nutrition research is constantly underway to determine everything from the impact of eating different types of protein on a person’s heart health to whether or not garlic reduces cholesterol.
“Researchers might know, for instance, that a certain nutrient has been shown in the lab or anecdotally to provide a health benefit,” the Globe reported.
But the studies can’t proceed without volunteer participants. While the Globe pointed out that free food—and sometimes a stipend—can attract volunteers, researchers must still prepare interested individuals for the impact the study is going to have on their lives.
"All of a sudden, you can't grab your favorite food anymore," Helen Rasmussen, a senior research dietitian at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts, told the Globe. Describing how she ensures that volunteers don’t stray from their prescribed diet, Rasmussen explained to the newspaper that she gives participants clues about what to expect from her.
"I ask them how they respond to nagging from their mother—at least they appreciate the warning,” she told the Globe.
Tufts’Alice Lichtenstein explained to the Globe that Rasmussen has the right idea. She said that researchers need to be upfront with prospective study participants about the demands of the job.
"We really try to talk about the trials' tribulations," Lichtenstein said. "Some people don't anticipate ahead of time how much they enjoy their normal food routine. If a major part of their social life is going out with friends to eat, then this kind of study is probably not going to be for them."
The requirements of Lichtenstein’s study—which examines the relationship between specific proteins (found in foods like chicken, soy and fish) and heart health—didn’t scare off everyone. Those who volunteered now follow a healthier diet.
“Participants in that study pick up all their food three times a week from a bustling kitchen, lugging home precisely measured portions, with instructions to eat the food from the container it's served in and to even use water and a scraper to make sure they consume any remnants in the bowl,” the Globe reported.
While volunteers are expected to follow the rules, one Tufts scientist told the Globe that he and his colleagues rarely take their word for it when they say they are. He explained to the newspaper that researchers sometimes add “small amounts of harmless chemicals to food” to keep the participants honest.
"If we put it in food and you eat it, we get it back," said Dr. Edward Saltzman, an HNRCA scientist, told the Globe, noting that the chemicals can be detected in a urine test. A urine test can even pinpoint the foods a person has been eating in place of those required by the study. The newspaper reported that researchers catch on if there is too much “of a certain substance,” like sodium, in someone’s urine.
"That's usually because you've gone across the street to McDonald's or had chips," Saltzman told the Globe.
But with so much conflicting information floating around about how different foods impact your health, study participants like Evans—who was involved in research at Tufts focused on restricted-calorie diets—say they have plenty of motivation to stay on track.
"You get so many mixed messages from different headlines and different studies that I wanted to get to the background truth of it,” he told the Globe.