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September 12, 2003

Animal specialist now makes a difference in human nutrition

Paul Flakoll
Since January, Paul Flakoll has directed the Center for Designing Foods to Improve Nutrition. Photo by Grant Steinfeldt.
by Teddi Barron
What do elderly women, professional baseball players, dialysis patients, aging dogs, U.S. Marine recruits and premature infants have in common?
Paul Flakoll.

Flakoll studies how nutrients --particularly protein and energy -- are metabolized in various groups of humans and animals under various circumstances.

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 elderly.

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 Center.

"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 physical activities.

"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?

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