A look at how Adelphi researchers are studying food and nutrition.
by Charity ShumwayMost of us think of food every few hours or so, but for many professors at Adelphi, food and nutrition get much more than this passing attention. They’re the focus of years of work and research. How we eat can shape our culture. The food choices we make can affect our environment and our economy. What we eat can make us sick or keep us healthy, even prolong our lives. And with nutrition-related illnesses at an all-time high, training health professionals to better address nutrition has never been more important. Here’s a look at how researchers at the University are studying all those aspects of food and nutrition and more.
Food and the First American Settlers
In his new book, Political Gastronomy: Food and Authority in the English Atlantic World, published in 2012 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Adelphi College of Arts and Sciences Associate Professor of History Michael LaCombe, Ph.D., focuses on the role of food in encounters between Native Americans and the English settlers in the United States between 1570 and 1640. “That’s the interesting period,” Dr. LaCombe says, laughing. “Once the English get things figured out, things get really boring.”
Among the early settlers’ food-related concerns were what effects, if any, new world foods would have on their health. “They believed in the four humors,” explains Dr. LaCombe. “Blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Certain foods were believed to have an effect on the balance of the humors, which they thought could make you sick. Cucumbers and tomatoes, for example, were suspicious because they were cold and moist, so many people thought they would make your body cold and moist.” Corn seemed to be of particular concern. “The settlers worried that if they ate this strange New World food, they would become Indian,” Dr. LaCombe says. “There are accounts of English babies born in the New World and families writing back to England noting with surprise and relief that the babies were ‘born white.’”
More than simply investigating the settlers’ experiences with food, Dr. LaCombe’s research looks at the way food established relationships between the English and Native Americans, in particular at shared meals. “I argue that all parties to these meals understood that there were meanings passing back and forth. When you sit down to table with somebody, this is an important occasion and your manners are being scrutinized.”
For example, sharing rare or high-status food was often a means of asserting superiority. “There’s a very common reference to a gift of venison at the first Thanksgiving,” Dr. LaCombe says. “With venison and other similar foods, the Native American leaders who arrive at Plymouth are in part trying to convey meaning relating to their own superiority and status.”
Labor Practices and the Local Food Movement
Thanks to the local food movement, more people than ever are asking questions about how their food is grown and raised. But there’s one consideration that is almost always forgotten, says Margaret Gray, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The locavore movement at its heart promotes a food ethic,” Dr. Gray continues, “but labor needs to be included in that equation.”
Part of the reason for this is a false dichotomy, says Dr. Gray. “We have this idea of ‘corporate industrial monoculture’: bad, ‘local mom and pop’: good. But there’s no inherent good or bad depending on the scale of the farm. Local is just geography. The same issues that we’re concerned about on large corporate farms, we should be concerned about on local farms, too, and consumers should be aware that the labor practices on small farms mirror the labor practices on large industrial farms.”
Dr. Gray’s research focuses on the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, one of the major sites of the local food movement in the United States. Starting in 2000, she began interviewing farmers, farm workers, advocates, legislators and lobbyists regarding labor practices on farms in the area.
“The vast majority of the industry workforce are noncitizen immigrants,” says Dr. Gray. “They are an extremely vulnerable workforce, and much of what I explore is how that vulnerability is related to the labor conditions and how their reluctance and fear change their situations.”
For example, Dr. Gray explains, farm workers in New York State do not share the same rights as other workers. “They have no right to overtime pay, no collective bargaining protections, no right to a day of rest.”
While there are campaigns at work to change this, Dr. Gray hopes her research, which will be published by the University of California Press in a forthcoming book entitled Labor and the Locavore, can also play a role in creating change. “I want to raise awareness,” she says. “When we’re buying food in farmers markets or at their CSA [community-supported agriculture program], we need to ask questions about labor conditions the same way we ask about pesticide usage and the way animals are treated.”
Nutrition, Lifespan and the Fruit Fly
What would you do to live longer? Multiple studies have shown that extremely calorie restricted diets can extend our life spans; cut back to bare subsistence and you could add years to your life. Unfortunately, for most of us, human nature interferes. “We don’t want to go on that diet even if we know it’s good for us,” says Adelphi Assistant Professor of Biology Eugenia Villa-Cuesta, Ph.D. That’s where her research comes in.
For the past four years, Dr. Villa-Cuesta has been studying two drugs that can mimic the effects of dietary restriction: resveratrol and rapamycin.
Resveratrol, found in the skins of grapes, has been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Rapamycin, on the other hand, is not found in food. “It’s actually produced by bacteria and found in soil,” says Dr. Villa-Cuesta. As a drug, it’s currently used as an immunosuppressant to lower the risk of organ rejection in transplant patients. Both compounds, however, have been shown to have possible effects on extending lifespan, and Dr. Villa-Cuesta’s research focuses on the mechanism by which they do this on the cellular level. “I found that resveratrol and rapamycin work similarly, affecting the same mechanisms in cells as calorie restriction,” she says.
To understand exactly how the compounds work in our cells, Dr. Villa-Cuesta and her lab test them in fruit flies. “They’re a great model organism,” she explains. “The pathways for these compounds within the cells are the same from fruit flies to humans.” Her research has also found that rapamycin increases the efficiency of mitochondria, the organelles within our cells that produce the energy for us to live.
While resveratrol is a health supplement anyone can currently buy over the counter, Dr. Villa- Cuesta cautions that we’re still a long way from a resveratrol/rapamycin life span extension regimen for humans. Still, she can’t help but be excited. “The potential of both as a treatment for increasing health is there,” she says.
Adelphi’s New M.S. in Nutrition Program
School of Nursing Clinical Associate Professor Diane Dembicki’s interest in nutrition began when she was an anthropology graduate student, examining skeletal material from prehistoric Native Americans. “You could see evidence of diet and disease in the bones,” she says, marvel still in her voice. She followed up her anthropology degree with a Ph.D. in Nutrition and found her niche in teaching nutrition to students in the health professions. Dr. Dembicki has since gone on to study subjects from companion-animal influences on health and behavior to healing in the arts; but her latest research has taken her all the way from prehistory to the cutting edge of training and technology.
Over the last two years, Dr. Dembicki has been studying best practices in knowledge and technology as part of the School of Nursing and the Center for Health Innovation’s efforts to develop a new M.S. in Nutrition program. Starting this fall, drawing on Dr. Dembicki’s research, Adelphi will begin educating its first class of M.S. in Nutrition students in a new fully online program, with Dr. Dembicki serving as director.
“Over two billion people in the world are malnourished,” Dr. Dembicki says. “Right away, we think undernourished, but that number also includes the overnourished. The world, but also locally and nationally in our own communities, needs more nutrition experts. That means properly educated and credentialed people with a specialization in nutrition.”
Adelphi’s new program is aimed at college graduates who are interested in health and nutrition. While course materials will be available 24/7, with integrated social media, sections will be kept small so that students will still receive individualized faculty attention. “Many students may be locals initially,” says Dr. Dembicki, “but because it’s online, the program has a potential global reach.”
Soon, a whole new cadre of Adelphi educated nutrition experts will be working to ensure that the bones of the future have healthy stories to tell.
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