Boston University’s Nutritional Epidemiology Laboratory – which focuses on areas such as eating disorders, pediatric health and the effects of dieting – offers research and mentorship opportunities for students and faculty . The lab is led by Paula Quatromoni, associate professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
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 nutritional recommendations these patients receive from diabetes treatment, which tell them to “eat less, move more”, often conflict with the advice they receive from binge eating treatment, which tells them to “eat more regularly,” she noted.
“We wanted to understand what it was like for the patient to be between two fires,” 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 a senior consultant at Walden, said most of the research is done 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 2004 and published the “second article in the literature on the treatment of eating disorders and athletes” in 2008, a she declared.
“It was like we opened a Pandora’s box,” Quatromoni said. “There were a lot of eating issues in athletics, which is not uncommon, it happens everywhere, and it certainly happens to college-aged students.”
Maura Walker, research assistant professor at Sargent and the School of Medicine, said the basis of epidemiological research done at the lab focuses on the Framingham Heart Study, a multigenerational cohort study housed at BU that identifies the causes of cardiovascular illnesses.
“Multi-generational means we have three different generations of participants,” said Walker, also a nutritional epidemiologist in the lab. “The original cohort started in the 1950s. We have been following them for over 70 years.
Walker said the study — which is now following grandchildren from the original cohort — is collecting data to examine how various dietary characteristics and patterns may influence cardiometabolic health.
“I look at different biological systems in our body, things like proteins and metabolites circulating in the gut microbiome, and see how diet can influence these to affect health,” Walker said. “A fundamental conclusion that we keep coming back to is that there are many ways to have a healthy diet.”
Nicola McKeown, a nutritional epidemiologist and research professor at Sargent who joined the lab in January, wrote in an email that she has a particular interest in personalized nutrition, as well as questions such as “What social behaviors , Psychological, or Dietary Help People Stick to Their Diet?” or “How Does Carbohydrate Quality Affect Disease Risk?”
“A project I will be focusing on in my research lab this summer is updating an ongoing database on ‘Dietary Fiber and Human Health Outcomes,'” McKeown wrote. “This publicly available online database serves as a resource for health researchers and policy makers to assess the evidence linking dietary fiber to specific physiological health outcomes.”
Quatromoni, whose thesis work involved the Framingham Heart Study, later branched out into promoting children’s health. She said the lab developed a nutrition program in 2004 for a Cambridge non-profit organization called CYCLE Kids, an after-school cycling program.
“Giving them that life skill and teaching them how to eat healthy has been a really powerful vehicle, no pun intended,” she said.
Quatromoni added that CYCLE Kids now operates nationwide, spanning the Deep South, Midwest and Navajo Nation.
“The lab has really evolved over time from the epidemiology of large populations…to impacting local communities,” she said.