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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Nutrition Research...Some Incidental Findings Learned Along the Way
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Janet Hunt

Women like vegetarian diets. Men don't mind eating diets low in meat. There are advantages to eating a research diet. And volunteers in the Grand Forks area are highly conscientious people. These are some of the incidental findings from my research at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. Yes, much of our work is highly quantitative...we weigh the food, measure the nutrients and statistically analyze the results. But as we work with volunteers in human nutrition studies, there are also plenty of observations that can't be MEASURED. (described in numbers and figures.)

We recently learned that consuming a vegetarian diet improved blood cholesterol, and reduced absorption of iron and zinc. Along the way, we learned that women who ate a vegetarian diet liked it as well as or better than a non-vegetarian diet. This was true even though they ate each diet, with the same foods every other day, for 8 weeks! Word-of-mouth brought in new volunteers who had heard that the study diets were really good.

We were a little concerned, though, when we wanted to study men eating diets high or low in meat. Thinking that the men would prefer the high-meat diet, we offered slightly more money to those assigned to eat the low-meat diet. Much to our surprise, several men indicated that they were happy to be assigned the low- meat diet. The extra payment wasn't necessary!

For approximately 10 years now, we have been doing studies lasting 2 to 4 months that control everything a volunteer eats. Volunteers come for breakfast on weekdays, and take away coolers packed with lunch, dinner, and a snack to eat at work or at home. They also participate in tests on blood and sometimes urine or stools, measurements of mood, memory, learning, body fat, bone density, or mineral absorption.

But why would anyone want to volunteer? Well, besides the money and the satisfaction of contributing to research, many volunteers enjoy having their food provided ready-to-eat. They don't have to plan meals, shop, cook, or do dishes. In addition, they often form new friendships while eating with other volunteers. Two women from our most recent study are on a waiting list so that they can volunteer together for the next study!

Perhaps our most impressive incidental finding has been the conscientious dedication of our volunteers in the Grand Forks community. At the time of the flood last year, 14 men were participating in a study on iron absorption. On Saturday morning, April 19th, a large portion of the city had been evacuated. However, the research center was not yet in a mandatory evacuation area, and we still were uncertain whether it would be necessary to completely stop the research.

A volunteer who had already evacuated his family to another town phoned us to say where he was and that he was committed to completing the study. He wanted to know the amounts of each food on his diet, so that he could purchase and weigh them for a couple of days until he could return to Grand Forks. Within hours, the research center was in the mandatory evacuation area. It was subsequently flooded, and the study was postponed for 4 months. However, 8 of the 14 volunteers completed the study in the fall, despite their personal losses and increased time commitments after the flood.

There are some things you can't test with statistics. My own research experience tells me that volunteers in the Grand Forks area are some of the most reliable, dedicated, and down-right nice people participating in research anywhere.


Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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