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BU lab researching diet, health and eating disorders

The Nutritional Epidemiology Lab at Boston University — which focuses on areas including eating disorders, pediatric health and the effect of dieting — provides research and mentorship opportunities to students and faculty. The lab is run by Paula Quatromoni, associate professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Entrance to the Nutritional Epidemiology Lab at Boston University’s Sargent College. The lab is currently working on research involving patients with both binge-eating disorders and type-two diabetes. BAYLE VINES/DFP STAFF

Established in 2002, Quatromoni said the lab is currently working on research involving adult patients with both binge eating disorder and Type 2 diabetes.

The nutrition recommendations these patients receive from diabetes treatment, which tell them to “eat less, move more,” often conflict with the advice they get from binge eating treatment, which tells them to “eat more regularly,” she noted.

“We wanted to understand what it’s like for the patient being in the crossfires,” she said.

The lab conducted interviews with patients who had been treated at Walden Behavioral Care — an eating disorder treatment organization — asking about “their lived experience” with both health conditions, Quatromoni said.

Quatromoni, who is also the senior consultant at Walden, said most of the research is conducted in partnership with the organization because they have medical records on thousands of patients they have treated.

At Walden, Quatromoni established an eating disorder treatment program for athletes in 2015 and published the “second paper in the literature on the treatment of eating disorders and athletes” in 2020, she said.

“It was like we opened a Pandora’s box,” Quatromoni said. “There was a lot of eating concerns in athletics, which is not uncommon, it happens everywhere, and it happens definitely to college-age students.”

Maura Walker, a research assistant professor at Sargent and the School of Medicine, said the foundation of the epidemiological research done at the lab focuses on the Framingham Heart Study, a multi-generational cohort study housed at BU that identifies causes of cardiovascular disease.

“Multi-generational means that we have three different generations of participants,” Walker, also a nutritional epidemiologist at the lab, said. “The original cohort initiated in the 1950s. We’ve been following them for over 70 years.”

Walker said the study — which is now following the grandchildren of the original cohort — collects data to examine how various dietary features and patterns can influence cardiometabolic health.

“I look at different biological systems in our body, things like the gut microbiome circulating proteins and metabolites, and I see how diet might influence those to affect health,” Walker said. “One fundamental, basic conclusion we keep coming to over and over again, is there’s multiple ways to have a healthy dietary pattern.”

Nicola McKeown, a nutritional epidemiologist and research professor in Sargent who joined the lab in January, wrote in an email that she is particularly interested in personalized nutrition, as well as addressing questions such as “What social, psychological or dietary behaviors help people stick to their diets?” or “How does carbohydrate quality impact disease risk?”

“One project that I will focus on in my research lab this summer is updating an ongoing database on ‘Dietary Fibers and Human Health Outcomes,’” McKeown wrote. “This publicly available online database serves as a resource for health researchers and policymakers in evaluating evidence linking dietary fibers to specific physiological health outcomes.”

Quatromoni, whose dissertation work involved the Framingham Heart Study, later branched into working in child health promotion. She said the lab developed a nutrition curriculum in 2004 for a Cambridge nonprofit organization called CYCLE Kids, an after-school biking program.

“Giving them this life skill and teaching them about healthy eating has been a really powerful vehicle, no pun intended,” she said.

Quatromoni added that CYCLE Kids now runs nationally, spanning across the deep South, the Midwest and the Navajo Nation.

“The lab has really evolved over time from big population epidemiology … to making an impact on local communities,” she said.

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