Recharge with Strawberries

Strawberries, a juicy and sweet go-to snack for many people, are packed with beneficial nutrients naturally found in fruits and vegetables. But are they also a useful tool to help prevent cardiovascular disease? A team of Cal Poly faculty and students in the Food Science and Nutrition Department are researching the impact strawberries may have on heart and gut health.

Kari Pilolla, assistant professor of nutrition, is leading the team. A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and exercise physiologist, her research is focused on the role of nutrition and exercise in cardiometabolic health risk. “Our research is trying to connect what happens in the gut with heart health,” Pilolla said. “Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the risk for heart disease and other metabolic issues in high risk populations.”

The California Strawberry Commission and the California State University Agricultural Research Institute donated more than $200,000 to conduct the research — providing more than 25 students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience by working directly with participants, learning and applying relevant laboratory skills, and collecting and analyzing data.

Mia Abram (Nutrition, ‘19), who is pursuing a master’s degree in nutrition, is interested in nutrigenomics — the study of how nutrition affects gene expression. Abram is working on two research projects focused on the beneficial effects of polyphenols (micronutrients found in plant-based foods such as strawberries) on cardiovascular health under Pilolla’s guidance.

“There are so many people suffering from chronic health conditions that can potentially be alleviated with nutrition,” said Abram, who plans to pursue a career in public health. “We are essentially studying how the nutrients of a whole plant such as a strawberry can be beneficial to a person’s health — something I hope to do on a larger scale in the public health sector.”

The ReCHARGE with Strawberries project seeks to understand the effect that eating strawberries may have on a postmenopausal woman’s cholesterol, triglycerides, glycemic control, blood pressure, and inflammation — all measures of cardiovascular health. “The study is focused on women because as women age and go through menopause they become more at risk for heart disease and diabetes,” Pilolla said. “The hormonal changes increase their risk and we want to reduce their chances of developing metabolic issues.”

The 18-week study is ongoing, investigating the impact strawberries have on the health of recruited participants by analyzing blood and stool samples. Cal Poly researchers, including Michael La Frano, assistant professor of nutrition, Jean Davidson, assistant professor of biology, and Hunter Glanz, assistant professor of statistics, are working in conjunction with Assistant Professor Taylor Bloedon at Humboldt State University to recruit participants from Fresno, Humboldt, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Tulare counties.

Ongoing Research

Abram, along with senior nutrition major Karli McCarthy, also participated in the college’s 10-week Summer Undergraduate Research Program by examining the role of strawberries in improving nutrients that are commonly deficient in the diets of overweight, postmenopausal women. 

“I involve students in every aspect of this project so that they can gain experiences from concept-to-completion and from bench-to-bedside,” Pilolla said. “They are acquiring both hard and soft skills that will prepare them to become the next generation of scien- tists and health care professionals.” 

 

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