As a new parent you can go no longer than 24 hours without hearing the phrase “Breast is Best.” I know this to be true because I became a parent in June of this year. In the hospital we were offered consults with lactation and had no less than six posters in our room touting the benefits of breastfeeding. As a PhD student I was intrigued by the literature behind these recommendations and eagerly spent multiple late night nursing sessions on my iPad reading the latest research. What I found were some studies finding associations with reduced risk of obesity, and others failing to find this same association (literature). Overall, it was concluded in the previous review that breastfeeding was associated with a reduced risk of obesity.

While this was great news, I could not help but question; was this association because of breastmilk or mode of delivery? Bottle feeding is typically associated with formula feeding but a growing number of women have begun pumping their breastmilk after returning to work or in cases of pre-term birth and latch issues.

Could bottle feeding breastmilk still ameliorate the risk of obesity later in life?

I was not the first person to raise this question which has been addressed here, here, here, and here. Overall the consensus seems to be that early bottle feeding, of breastmilk or formula, is associated with an increased risk for excess weight gain and poor self regulation. Exclusively feeding expressed milk is also associated with early cessation of breast-milk feeding.

So this leads to the inevitable question; what is a mother to do?

While the literature is still unclear if bottled breastmilk can fight obesity risk, it is clear the breastmilk has multiple other benefits according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and should be offered when possible. So to those mothers who pump a little, a lot, or all the time, I say pump on ladies!

Interview with Elizabeth J. Parks, Professor at the University of Missouri and Past Chair of the ASN Publications Committee

Since 2013, Dr. Parks has been a Professor in the Department of Nutrition & Exercise Physiology and Associate Director of the Clinical Research Center in the Institute for Clinical Translational Science at the University of Missouri (fondly known as Mizzou). Previously, she was Associate Professor in Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Recently, she received the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s 2015 Award for Excellence in Junior Faculty Research Mentoring and the 2016 Robert I. Levy Award from the Kinetics and Metabolism Society.

1. How did you first get involved in nutrition epidemiology and research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

The genetics of heart disease strongly affects the health of my family, and influenced my academic path. Early in my career, I worked as a technician in a lab with cardiovascular researchers who stressed the importance of nutritional strategies in treating chronic diseases. I was impressed with how a prudent diet could improve health.

2. When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization?

ASN was the scientific organization that my mentor, Barbara Schneeman, was active in. Like many other graduate students, my first scientific presentation was at EB and over the past 27 years, membership has benefited my career in many ways. I learned early on that being involved in professional associations was the key to success, and that’s true for any career. These organizations provide essential networking opportunities – even simply talking to someone at a conference poster presentation can change the course of your academic or career trajectory.

3. What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

Attending the scientific meeting has been the most rewarding. Aside from the excellent science presented there, this is the venue I attend to mentor and to be mentored. It is very rewarding to follow colleagues as their careers advance and to witness how a scientific life can have such a positive impact on others. At conferences, we have the chance to speak with people who are in a similar life stage as you, and we’re surrounded by others who understand the difficult life of a scientist. If you’re struggling to solve a problem, you have an audience of experienced researchers who can offer many possible solutions.

4. What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

I study how the body’s metabolism changes when we are fasting and then eat a meal. Food consumption is the physiologic challenge that our bodies are exquisitely designed to manage. In health, right at the beginning of a meal, a complete 180 degree shift in metabolic flux occurs. The body switches from burning stored nutrients (body fat and glycogen), to absorbing, burning and storing the nutrients in the meal. Importantly, in chronic disease, this switch is not well regulated and it is this inefficiency that causes disease pathologies.

5. Can you tell us more about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved?

At Mizzou, I am fortunate to be surrounded by some of the best human physiologists in the U.S. working in state-of-the-art facilities. We have many collaborative projects that investigate the effects of over-eating and sedentary behavior on metabolism. One NIH-funded study focuses on the benefits of diet and exercise to treat nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. We hypothesize that weight loss and improved fitness, both shown to reduce liver disease, do so through a mechanism of enhanced mitochondrial activity. This project would not be possible without the collaboration of faculty in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

6. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?

One of the biggest challenges facing us is that the power of the scientific approach is currently under-appreciated in our culture. Some people want to believe that a particular nutritional strategy will solve all ills. Since nutrition messages in the press have appeared to be contradictory (this week, “Coffee is good for you,” next week, “coffee is bad for you.”), this has led many in the public to just tune us out. Our discipline has the same attributes of other sciences – information is ever evolving. Thus, dietary advice may also change over the years. We need to do a better job of communicating how nutrition science leads to discoveries that can benefit individuals and improve the health of citizens.

Nutrition science is also by nature interdisciplinary, and we must cross disciplines in order to be effective. We must work in teams: animal researchers can collaborate with human researchers to make sure their results will apply to the human condition, and epidemiologists can get more mechanistic with data collection. It doesn’t make sense for any one person to attempt a novel discovery, and we will be more effective once communication across disciplines improves.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to tell ASN members, especially students and postdocs?

I have four concepts for mentees to mull over. First, bring energy to your training environment. You need energy, self-motivation and organization to flourish in an academic setting. Trainees must reach out and grab a hold of the experiences that are presented to them. If a mentor is writing a grant or review paper, ask to participate in the process. If another trainee needs assistance in acquiring data, volunteer to help them. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to assist others. Give your time to a professional organization and mentor those around you. The time spent in a doctoral program or postdoctoral fellowship will go by quickly and these environments provide once-in-a lifetime opportunities to learn.

Second, give your mentors a break. Mentees frequently do not know all the pressures and responsibilities their mentors are up against. In a research lab setting, because your mentor has built that environment, you get to learn in it; spend some time to learn what your mentor has gone through to get where they are. The worst situation to be in is when we don’t know what we don’t know – it is much better to be wrong and know why. So find out what your mentor’s job is really like: what are their current challenges, and how can you help them be successful?

Third, set goals, but enjoy your work along the way. In academics, our paths are frequently like being on a treadmill, forever going up hill. The feeling can be, ‘you have not succeeded until you’ve finished your doctoral degree.’ Then, you’ve not succeeded until you’ve completed postdoctoral experiences. Next, you aren’t a success until you get your first job. And then there’s the goal of promotion and tenure. If you wait until you have achieved a promotion to be happy, you will have been unhappy a good portion of your career. It is important to find a way to enjoy the everyday work of science…even when it means repeating that experiment a third time!

Lastly, embrace the complexity of your science. Despite the huge gains that have been made in understanding the molecular control of gene expression, much less is known about the individual responses of human physiology to nutrients and dietary patterns. Understanding the factors that contribute to individual responses will be key to future developments in precision medicine. This field is complex but it represents one avenue of nutrition science that is wide open for discovery.

Dr. Parks’ research interests include cephalic phase of food intake and sensory effects on absorption of lipids, the effect of dietary macronutrients on the development of obesity-related disorders, non-alcoholic hepatic steatosis, liver inflammation, and postprandial metabolism, and modeling of non-steady state kinetics in metabolism.

Interview with Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and Advisor for the ASN Early Career Nutrition (ECN) Interest Group

Dr. Nestle is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, where she has been since 1988. She is also a professor of Sociology at NYU and a visiting professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Recently, she won writing and literary awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals for her most recent book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

1. How did you first get involved in nutrition epidemiology and research? What made you interested in the field of nutrition science?

My doctorate is in molecular biology (nucleic acid enzymology) so I have longstanding experience in science. My first teaching job was in the Biology Department at Brandeis University, where I ran the undergraduate biology laboratory courses and taught molecular and cell biology to majors and premeds.
The department was unusual in having two teaching rules: you could only teach the same course three times in a row (so you stayed fresh), and you had to teach whatever the department needed (because you knew more than undergraduates). When my three years of cell biology were up and it was time for me to switch courses, it turned out that students had been petitioning the department to teach human biology courses. I was offered a choice of human physiology or human nutrition, and picked nutrition.
This was in the mid-1970s. Two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling had just published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, and Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet was on the best seller list. Michael Jacobson had just launched Center for Science in the Public Interest and published Food for People, Not for Profit, a book of essays about food topics that could have been written yesterday. I picked nutrition to teach because I was curious to know whether there was any science behind any of this.
To find out, I started reading the literature. I soon discovered that there is plenty of science but that humans make terrible experimental animals. Methods are imprecise and results hard to interpret. Whereas teaching cell and molecular biology means teaching students to accept abstractions that they cannot see, taste, smell, or feel, teaching nutrition was fun—and a fabulous way to teach critical thinking in biology. In those days, any undergraduate could read a nutrition research paper and see inadequacies in methods or interpretation. It was like falling in love and I’ve never looked back.

2. When and why did you first join ASN? What convinced you to join the organization

I left Brandeis for a job teaching nutrition to medical students at UCSF, where we created a coordinated program we called Nutrition UCSF. I worked with faculty in various specialties to put that together. We had a federal grant to teach nutrition to medical students and physicians. Some of the faculty were involved in developing nutrition support teams to work with hospitalized patients. I worked with them to establish the Northern California chapter of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition and started going to its meetings. At one of them, I met Lyn Howard (from Albany Medical College), and she suggested I join the American Society for Clinical Nutrition and the American Institute for Nutrition, the ASN forerunners. She sponsored my applications, and I felt honored when they were accepted. This must have been in the early 1980s, but I can’t find a record of the exact year.

3. What aspects of ASN membership have you found most useful, professionally? What other aspects of your membership do you find useful as your career has progressed?

I came into the nutrition field from outside it and didn’t know who was who or what was what for a long time. I should add that toward the end of my sojourn at UCSF it was clear that I needed nutrition credentials and I did a master’s in public health nutrition at Berkeley. I did my public health field work as a consultant for the Agency for International Development in Southeast Asia, and went from there to Washington, DC as senior nutrition policy advisor to the Department of Health and Human Services, where I edited the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. For one regrettable reason or another, I’ve never been able to attend annual meetings regularly so my main contact with ASN has been through its journals. I mostly know ASN members through other professional routes.

4. What aspects of your research do you foresee being most important for ASN members?

The most important one has to do with conflicts of interest. I’ve been increasingly concerned about the damage to the reputation of nutrition researchers caused by financial ties to food companies with a vested interest in the outcome of their research. I was embarrassed for our profession by Michele Simon’s report: “Nutrition Scientists on the Take from Big Food: Has the American Society for Nutrition Lost All Credibility.” I spoke about my concerns at the initial meeting of ASN’s current “truth” committee and am looking forward to its forthcoming report.

5. Can you tell us more about your current position and the research activities in which you are involved?

I am answering these questions a couple of months before I officially retire from NYU after 29 years, although I don’t expect much to change in my professional life. I am keeping my office and title for a few more years, at least. My current book project is about the effects of food industry funding of nutrition research and practice. This is a long-standing concern that I’ve been writing about occasionally since 2001, including in Soda Politics. I decided to do the book after reading the New York Times’ front-page story on Coca-Cola’s funding of investigators behind the Global Energy Balance Network, whose leaders argued that physical inactivity is more important than overeating in determining body weight. This book will have a chapter about the reputational risks of ASN’s financial ties to food companies.

6. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing nutrition researchers today? Are there any areas where you would like to see more research?
I’ve always believed that the most intellectually challenging problem in our field is determining what people actually eat. Everyone other than nutrition professionals thinks getting dietary information is easy and so is relating it to chronic disease risk. But I think formulating research questions and designing studies to answer questions about diet and health are enormously difficult and I have great respect for everyone who takes on such questions. That’s the intellectual challenge.
The more practical challenge is the need for fully independent funding. Federal funding for nutrition research is limited and the cuts threatened by the Trump Administration will only make the need more critical. Without independent funding, the nutrition research agenda gets skewed in favor of projects food companies can use for marketing. The big research questions are to define dietary patterns that promote health, find ways to provide healthful diets to people who lack resources, and identify effective dietary approaches to preventing noncommuncable diseases.

7. Is there anything else you’d like to tell ASN members, especially students and postdocs?

This is a field that badly needs well trained researchers who can tackle the complex biological, social, and political issues related to food and nutrition on the research agenda. These are tough issues to address and they need all the help they can get. I’m planning to end my book about food industry funding with advice to stakeholders. My advice to students and postdocs is to be careful about accepting research funding from any company that has even the remotest interest in the outcome of their studies. The evidence that industry funding influences research outcome is overwhelming and undeniable. Furthermore, recipients are unconscious of the influence, making protection difficult. If at all possible, find another source of funding. If your research supervisor insists that you accept industry funding, consider working with another research supervisor. Credibility and integrity matter a lot at every career stage. You might as well start yours out right.

Dr. Nestle’s research and writing examine scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing. Her interests in nutrition and food policy and politics include food and nutrition policy development and analysis (domestic and international), with a focus on dietary guidance, social and environmental influences on food choice, and the effects of food industry marketing on diet and health; and communicating information about the links among agriculture, food, nutrition, and health to students, professionals, and the public. Since 2002, she has written eight books on such topics. Her next book, tentatively titled “Buying Nutrition Science: How Food Industry Sponsorship Skews Research and Harms Public Health,” will be published by Basic Books late in 2018.