This year, the theme is "Put Your Best Fork Forward," as the Academy suggests "starting with small changes" in diet while consulting the country's new Dietary Guidelines. They recommend limiting sugar, saturated fat and salt while eating a wide variety of whole foods.
Read on to learn about the ways UT Austin's research and experts are answering questions and expanding our understanding of nutrition.
1. It's wise to limit the sugar, salt and saturated fat you eat.
Jaimie Davis, an associate professor of nutritional sciences, praises the new dietary guidelines that for the first time limit added sugar intake, recommending no more than 10 percent of total energy. Putting pen to paper for Texas Perspectives, Davis says:
The science on sugar is clear. The rates of childhood obesity and obesity-related diseases have reached epidemic proportions, with a third of children and two-thirds of adults being overweight or obese. Texas now has the 11th highest adult obesity rate in the nation. Added sugar intake has been consistently linked to this epidemic.
Davis' research backs up her focus on sugar: unsupervised children gorge on pop tarts and soda instead of healthy options, yet still felt hungry; young adults that consume high amounts of added sugar have more fat around their organs, a major health risk; and the brains of children who drink sugar-sweetened beverages (sweet tea and energy drinks included) light up as if rewarded, indicating that cravings will be hard to cut.
Another interesting line of research comes from the lab of Molly Bray, professor and chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences. Bray has preliminary and compelling results that indicate that time of sugar and carbohydrate consumption determines if it is either burned by the body or stored as fat. Breakfast cereal, then, could be a dieter's worst nightmare since eating more sugar than fat in the morning leads to weight gain; eating a meal high in healthy fat like salmon or avocado early in the day, on the other hand, turn on the carb metabolism and fries the sugar.
2. There's no easy solution to weight gain and our unhealthy food environment.
The problem with most fad diets is that they fail miserably in the long term. It's simply not possible for most people to sustain an endless regimen of unpalatable, bland food or an eating plan that imposes excessive or unreasonable dietary restrictions. In fact, diets that are too restrictive can actually be harmful by producing loss of both lean muscle and fat tissue, resulting in a higher proportion of total body fat.
This thinking is echoed by a recent paper coauthored by Professor Jeanne Freeland-Graves that clarified the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: namely, "the total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of healthy eating."
Professor Margaret Briley's research on how parents navigate check-out line requests shows some hope for starting early with healthy eating in children. Parents respond in healthy ways to food requests 63 percent of the time, potentially teaching their children how to have a lifetime of good eating habits.
3. Your diet can help you manage and prevent disease.
Right now, Americans' dependence on processed foods and convenient, budget-friendly fast foods contributes to cancer. Because the Western diet is high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as corn and soybean oil, and in simple sugars, many people experience low-grade inflammation linked to obesity. This increases the risk of breast cancer.
Inflammation interferes with cancer treatment. Numerous studies have shown that obesity and the Western diet induce changes in the body that make surviving breast cancer more difficult.
The Department of Nutritional Sciences has a number of upcoming events and seminars that tease apart the impact of food choice on health.
The 2017 Jean Andrews Lectureship—free to the public—will be given by Harvard Medical School's Dr. Edward Giovannuci: How much of cancer is preventable through nutrition and physical activity? A discussion follows the lecture with panel members from UT Austin and Dell Medical School.
The University of Texas Nutrition Institute has created a program that combines information with food production for health professionals needing CME credits. Fighting the Fire with Food: Strategies to Prevent Chronic Disease and Inflammation is also this March.
4. Being hands-on can lead to better health.
If you're hungry after reading this, UT Austin's nutrition experts are full of ideas for what you can do next.
Under the direction of faculty member Lydia Steinman, undergraduates are creating cooking videos that pair healthy recipes with an insider's knowledge of nutrition. Cook 'Em is a resource for the student or professional who has little time to research fat or sugar content but wishes to prepare healthy meals.
Jaimie Davis' Texas Sprouts team is working in many schools across the region where children grow, harvest and prepare food. These children also learn to distinguish between good and bad food choices—a curriculum that you, too, could bring home. In fact, there are a few hidden recipes, like cucumber lemon water, that the young students prepare at school. According to Davis, they look forward to different agua frescas and often spread the recipes for healthy drinks to friends and family.
5. Our policy choices can impact what we eat.
When we pull back and look at the larger picture, there is a growing consensus that policy in the age of global trade and big agriculture impacts every morsel forked. The impact starts with trade partnerships like the suspended Trans-Pacific, according to government Professor Bartholomew Sparrow:
The Trans-Pacific Partnership would effectively outsource domestic food inspection…[because inspection by] an importing government…could be interpreted as an unnecessary technical barrier to trade. Similarly, label information on the country of origin…[and] regulations on food additives, animal drugs, pesticides or herbicides, and the products of recombinant DNA technology — GMOs, or transgenic organisms — could be taken by food companies as violating partnership rules.
Policy at home also affects food quality. The federal subsidy for farmers—the Farm Bill—has a shadowy link to the obesity epidemic because it promotes grain use. The Bill also provides meager food assistance for the poor. Raj Patel, a research professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, has thought about the food industry a lot:
A recent study published by the American Medical Association traced several commodities supported by the Farm Bill—corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock—and linked their consumption to several cardio metabolic risks. The ultimate beneficiaries of food subsidies are…the food companies that profit from low costs and a ready market for their products. The result is that federal and market subsidies encourage cheap food with high social and environmental costs.
In fact, Patel and colleagues recently found that food insecurity is much higher in Austin—at 25% of homes—than the national average. Diane Papillion, lecturer of nutritional sciences, points out that nearly half of all Texas school children qualify for free lunch, a program that was created 70 years ago to combat preventable diseases due to poor nutrition. "Feeding children in school has proved to be one of the most successful nutrition interventions that exists," she says.