"By engaging people directly in conversations about what they eat and why they eat it, my students get to more fully appreciate the challenge of trying to change people's diets."
Kristie Lancaster was enjoying a career in public relations when she happened upon a book called Sugar Blues. "It's kind of a radical book," she says, laughing. "The author pretty much blames sugar for all of society's ills." That idea seemed a bit much to Lancaster, but she was intrigued. She decided to see what would happen if she removed all of the processed sugar from her diet. When she did, the difference it made was striking - not only in weight loss, but also in energy levels. "I became driven to know more about what food does to the body."
At the same time, Lancaster took notice of a troubling characteristic of lower-income neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. "These neighborhoods had very few grocery stores," she says. "And the stores they did have didn't carry much in the way of fruits and vegetables, or other healthy foods."
She also noted that many of the people in these neighborhoods were overweight. "I thought, ‘Something has to be done about this.' I decided to go back school to become a dietitian so that I could try to help people in these communities." Lancaster left public relations and entered the graduate nutrition program at The Pennsylvania State University, where she received her PhD in 2000.
Lancaster's current research finds her investigating how diet relates to people with obesity, hypertension and diabetes, most of whom are older adults.
Her work on obesity involves her participation in a newly established research organization called AACORN (African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network), a national collaborative founded by female African American researchers who want to understand obesity and reduce its prevalence in their own community.
Her work on hypertension is currently focused on studies surrounding the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). These studies say that eating high amounts of fruits and vegetables and low fat dairy products lowers blood pressure significantly. "The positive affect of eating that type of diet was actually greater in the black subjects than it was in the white subjects," says Lancaster. "This tells me we really need to be promoting this diet in the African American community."
As for her research into diabetes, Lancaster recently collaborated with the director of the East Harlem Center for Diabetes Excellence at Mount Sinai. They went into supermarkets in East Harlem and the Upper East Side to see if they carry foods that might be recommended for people with diabetes: diet soda, low fat or skim milk, high fiber bread and any fruits and vegetables.
Some of her students assisted in this search, which Lancaster found helpful. "We discovered that stores on the Upper East Side were more likely to carry all of the five different recommended foods than the stores in East Harlem."
While it remains unclear to Lancaster if these stores don't carry the foods because people won't buy them, or if people don't buy the foods because they're not in the stores, she believes the findings are something everyone in East Harlem should know about. "They should be encouraged to walk those few extra blocks in order to choose healthier foods."
Students are also currently assisting Lancaster with presentations on nutrition and health to black church congregations in Harlem. "It's a great opportunity for the students. They're learning all of this very important information in class, but observing people in the community gives them some real life experience."
Lancaster says this is because in the classroom you can learn how to plan a diet for someone, but if the foods you recommend aren't part of that person's usual diet - for instance, as a group African Americans eat almost no yogurt - how are you going to convince someone that certain foods are something they should eat? "By engaging people directly in conversations about what they eat and why they eat it, my students get to more fully appreciate the challenge of trying to change people's diets."
Lancaster wants to find more opportunities to involve her students in her projects. "As my research grows, that's one of my most important goals."
She also looks forward to building the Undergraduate Studies program, of which she is Director. "We have a Food and Nutrition Club which has really taken off in the last couple years, and I think it's going to help the department grow by building community among the undergraduates."
Lancaster also cites the number of junior faculty as a sign of the department's growth. "We're all working toward grants that support research that will benefit the people of New York City. Within a few years we will have some active and interesting research projects in process that will involve students and make a real difference to the various communities in our city."