|February 22, 2001
Volume 31 Number 11
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Eat Your Veggies!
Nutritionist Researches Glycemic Index
Cindy Wolff, professor of nutrition and food science, was born and raised in Chico. "When I walk around campus, I feel like this is my spot; I belong here," she said. The campus is part of the neighborhood she bicycled through on her way to Notre Dame School. After school, she would stop in at her dad's feed store on the corner of First and Ivy. On the way, she would ride by the cottage where her aunt was born on the corner where Langdon and O'Connell Halls now stand.
After enjoying a career that led her far afield, both from her original focus on nutrition and from Chico, she returned to both of them in the mid-1980s.
Wolff attended CSU, Chico as an undergraduate in biology in the early 1970s and then went in search of nutrition programs at other California schools. She didn't realize that there was a program at CSU, Chico. She transferred to UC, Davis, then went to Berkeley to become a registered dietitian, and worked in K–12 nutrition education programs for the California State Department of Education. She returned to CSU, Chico for a master's degree in public administration.
Wolff then traveled to Nepal, where she wrote a variety of grant proposals in food safety, birth control, and family planning -- many of them having little to do with nutrition. "That was all right, since my focus had always been more generally on public health," she said.
Believing she could do more if she knew more, Wolff returned to college and completed her Ph.D. in nutrition at Colorado State University. Her heart never left Chico, and when, 14 years ago, she received word about the job at Chico, she came home.
"I'm back here in a place that I love," said Wolff. "I didn't know there was a nutrition program here 27 years ago, and I often think a lot of people on campus still don't know what we do over here."
One of Wolff's main areas of research is diabetes. "The increase in the number of Americans with type 2 diabetes makes it an epidemic in the United States," she said. Battling that epidemic is personal for Wolff, whose father died at age 47 from complications associated with the disease.
"Of the 20 most commonly consumed carbohydrate-rich foods in the U.S., 10 have a very high glycemic index," Wolff noted. We think this is part of the national problem with increasing body weight and the increase in diabetes itself."
Recently, Wolff was lead researcher on a project with Enloe Hospital. For the study , the research subjects, Caucasian women over the age of 35, attended the Enloe Outpatient Facility every three months for diabetes monitoring and education. The study explored the relationship between the glycemic index, weight, and blood glucose control.
The women completed a 24-hour food recall interview and answered questions about their typical food consumption patterns over the previous three months. This data was then analyzed and a glycemic index assigned to each woman's eating pattern. The overall glycemic index of the foods consumed did not correlate with blood glucose. "But if you look at eating patterns and combinations of foods there was a relationship," noted Wolff.
Wolff will present a paper on her findings at the California Dietitic Association annual meeting this spring. She also is working on setting up a follow-up study at the Enloe Outpatient Facility with the help of a graduate student. It will focus on diabetes among Mexican Americans, whom studies have shown to have a higher incidence of the disease than Caucasian Americans.
Wolff uses food combination in planning her family's meals: "If I have rice, which is a high glycemic index food, I cook it with lentils…and that will slow down the absorption rate of carbohydrate." Slowing down that absorption is important,
because the theory is that long- term consumption of a high glycemic index diet pushes the pancreas to produce insulin at a high rate, which could lead to pancreatic fatigue and insulin resistance, eventually leading to diabetes in people with the genetic predisposition.
A high glycemic index diet can lead to obesity. Support for this idea came from the analysis of the glycemic index and the body mass index (BMI) of the women in the Enloe study. For a normal BMI, the glycemic index averaged 71; for those overweight, the glycemic index was 74, for the obese (BMI greater than 30), the glycemic index was 76; and for the severely obese (BMI greater than 35), the glycemic index was 79. The range in BMI translates to the difference between weighing 130 pounds and weighing 195 pounds.
Wolff explained, "If you eat a high glycemic index food, you produce a lot of insulin, it works quickly, pushes the glucose into body cells, you're hungry for more. Not only have you helped store your food very effectively and very efficiently, but you've also cleared the blood, and you're hungry again."
Choosing a healthy lifestyle in the United States is difficult for people with a propensity for obesity, said Wolff. "All buttons for foods high on the glycemic index are moved into the 'yes' position immediately by our food environment."
Wolff is working hard to combat that environment. On February 7, she helped kick off the "5-a-Day" campaign in Butte County. Forty nutritionists from a variety of public health programs all over Northern California will work with teachers in a program to encourage children to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Fewer than 20% of children meet that goal at this time. Offering her own services and those of nutrition students to the campaign is one more way that Wolff is getting out the message of the relationship between nutrition and health. For the lay person, however, it still boils down to that age-old admonition: "Eat your vegetables!"
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