September 12, 2003
Animal specialist now makes a difference in human nutrition
by Teddi Barron
Since January, Paul Flakoll has directed the Center for Designing Foods to
Improve Nutrition. Photo by Grant Steinfeldt.|
What do elderly women, professional baseball players, dialysis patients,
aging dogs, U.S. Marine recruits and premature infants have in common?
Flakoll studies how nutrients --particularly protein and energy -- are
metabolized in various groups of humans and animals under various
Because of his research, Marines in Iraq have augmented their military
training with nutritional supplements, professional athletes are learning
how nutrition can enhance performance and the medical profession is
beginning to understand how improved dietary protein quality affects the
Flakoll is a nutritional physiologist. He joined Iowa State's faculty in
January as director of the Center for Designing Foods to Improve Nutrition.
He's also a professor in three departments: food science and human
nutrition, animal science, and health and human performance.
Since earning his Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition at Iowa State in 1988, Flakoll
has been at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, first as a
postdoctoral research fellow and eventually as a research associate
professor of surgery and biochemistry, and professional director of the
Diabetes Research and Training Center and the Clinical Nutrition Research
"I thought I'd spend a year or two in a medical environment, then get back
into some kind of animal agriculture. But it didn't work out that way. The
surgical faculty were interested in applying in human clinical studies some
nutrient metabolism techniques I used in ruminants while I was working on my
Ph.D.," he said.
Within a few months, Flakoll had a grant from the National Institutes of
Health and was asked to join the medical school's research faculty.
Many of Flakoll's clinical studies on nutrient metabolism in diabetics,
renal dialysis patients and the elderly used nutrient supplementation and
exercise to improve muscle growth and function.
These studies caught the attention of the U.S. Marine Corps.
As a consultant to the Marines at the Parris Island, S.C., boot camp in
2000, Flakoll identified nutritional approaches to keeping recruits healthy
during basic training.
His study measured the impact of protein supplements on the health and
performance of the 400 recruits. One group took a daily protein and energy
supplement developed by Flakoll. Another group took an energy supplement,
and a third group received a placebo, which had no nutritive value at all.
"We measured the changes in their fat, lean mass and functional activities,
such as rifle scores. We also tracked how often they were treated for
various medical conditions," he said.
"The differences between the supplemented group and the group taking
placebos were quite striking. And, there were huge effects in the group
receiving the supplement with protein," Flakoll said.
In the group that received protein supplements, there were 33 percent fewer
reports of treatment for colds, upper respiratory illnesses, fractures and
muscle ailments. In the group that received protein, only one person was
treated for heat stroke, compared to 13 in the other groups, he said.
Flakoll continues to work with the Marines, advising on dietary supplements
appropriate for troops in Iraq and throughout the world.
"The Marines used to think that they should just push the recruits out there
and make them learn how to endure," he said. "Now, they recognize that there
are nutritional ways to improve physical and mental performance."
Flakoll also advises the National Basketball Association, Major League
Baseball and the National Hockey League.
"These athletes are very interested in trying to enhance their productivity
and performance to a level that we can't even understand. The difference
between their success and failure can be very slim," he said.
"When I talk to major league baseball players, trainers or medical
personnel, I use slides to show how the players have 'grown' over the years.
It's incredible to look at the MVPs of baseball from 1990 to 2000, versus
those from 1951 to 1960. They're about 45 pounds heavier and 4.5 inches
taller now. Most of this added weight is muscle mass.
"As a result, they have specific, unique nutritional needs that have to be
addressed. That's what we're looking at," Flakoll said.
"The lifestyle they lead --particularly the NBA people, who go from city to
city -- is excruciating. Obviously, they don't have five fruits and
vegetables every day. And many know little about nutrition," he said.
"I talk to NBA medical personnel and players about getting a balanced diet
and about supplements that may be beneficial, as well as some supplements
that might be dangerous and should be avoided."
Although Flakoll hasn't been at Iowa State a full year, he has an $850,000
grant from the National Institutes of Health to study protein in a group of
80 elderly. The two-year study will get under way this fall.
"We're looking at specific amino acids, which are building blocks of
proteins, that may enhance their quality protein intake enough to reduce
muscle loss. Muscle loss during aging has a major impact on quality of
life," he said.
Preliminary data suggest that, particularly in women, the supplements will
have fairly positive effects on the elderly's ability to perform simple
"In Iowa, and across the country, aging and obesity are probably the two
areas that will have the most impact on future health care. Additional
nutritional research will need to be a central part of the solution to these
problems," Flakoll said.
Conducting applied research in an academic setting that fosters an
interdisciplinary approach was what lured Flakoll to accept the directorship
of the designing foods center.
"I'm very excited about the center. I had no reason to leave Vanderbilt, I
was very happy there. But, here we have very strong basic and applied
researchers in plant biology, animal science, food science and human
nutrition," he said.
"I look at my job here as a marriage broker, trying to bring those different
groups together on projects that can affect human health. Every-thing the
center does will meet our mission of better health through nutrition. I
think that's kind of where agriculture can find its niche again."
About the center
A research center of the Family and Consumer Sciences and Agriculture
colleges and the Plant Sciences Institute, the Center for Designing Foods to
Improve Nutrition conducts and fosters interdisciplinary research to improve
human nutrition and promote good health through new and traditional foods. A
total of 100 faculty from 30 departments are affiliated with center
research. Each year, the center receives a USDA grant that funds several ISU
research projects. New projects in 2003 include:
- Endocrine disruptors in human and livestock diets. Soy isoflavones
and Atrazine are known to have estrogenic effects. Researchers will
determine if this estrogen activity is high enough to have negative effects
in human and livestock diets.
- Bioavailability of vitamin B-6 from soy foods. There are indications
that soy inhibits vitamin B-6. Researchers will study the effect of
substituting soy milk for cow's milk on vitamin B-6 levels in humans.
- Evaluation of dietary modulators of intestinal health and function. A
model developed to test modulators of intestinal health will be used to test
the beneficial effects of these compounds in humans.
- Public policies for human nutrition, food selection and the food
supply. Socio-economic factors and public policies that foster and hinder
healthy diets will be studied.
- Impact of food availability on the dietary choices, intake and health
of rural elderly who live in Iowa food "deserts." What prevents some rural
elderly from eating healthy diets?
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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