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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Human Nutrition Research Center Mobilized for Local and Regional Studies
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James G. Penland

The Mobile Nutrition Research Laboratory (MNRL; think MiNeRaL) completed its first year of operation in April. It was a very successful year! The MNRL, operated by the USDA ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, is a 40-foot bus customized and equipped to evaluate dietary intakes and nutritional status, health, body composition, and physical and psychological function in field studies of human nutrition.

Studies have found that improved nutrition may be effective in preventing and/or treating some of the major health problems in our society, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes and depression. Given the enormous costs of these problems to the individual and society, there is an urgent need to scientifically evaluate the possible benefits of nutrition for health and function. Past research has too often ignored large segments of our population because of difficulties inherent in their participation. For example, individuals who live at a distance, who are sick or immobile, or who are simply too young to safely visit a research facility rarely participate in studies. The ability and convenience of taking the research laboratory to the individual solves these difficulties and substantially increases participation. Thus the MNRL allows our Center to study nutrition problems and benefits in at-risk and underserved populations, including school-aged children, the elderly, Native Americans, and others living in rural areas that cannot or will not participate in studies located at our Center.

The MNRL now is involved in three nutrition studies.

In August 2001, we began a multi-year study of young adolescents to determine the benefits of improving zinc nutrition for mental and physical function. During that fall, 114 seventh grade boys and girls attending Schroeder, South, Twining and Valley middle schools in Grand Forks completed a study that eventually will involve 300 children. Students drank fruit juice every school morning for 10 weeks that had been fortified with different amounts of zinc or contained a placebo. At the beginning and end of the study, students had blood drawn to determine health and nutritional status, met with a dietician to record dietary intakes, performed tasks on a microcomputer to measure cognitive function, completed questionnaires to measure social and emotional adjustment, had growth and body composition measured, and underwent physical fitness tests to measure strength, endurance and flexibility.

We are currently recruiting healthy postmenopausal women to participate in a study of the benefits of long-term mineral supplementation for bone metabolism. Reduced bone mineral density is strongly associated with fractures and the development of osteoporosis. Women will be provided supplements containing calcium alone or calcium plus copper and zinc for 2 years. They will be evaluated through blood tests and bone density measurements at the beginning of the study and every 6 months thereafter, with a follow-up evaluation 12 months after supplementation ceases. The MNRL will be used to involve women living outside Grand Forks in this important study.

This summer, the MNRL will travel to all four Native American reservations in North Dakota to determine the relationship between nutrient intakes and socioeconomic status, health, and fitness. Nationally, nearly half of all Native Americans suffer from heart disease and diabetes. Unfortunately, there is no information about the relationship between these major health problems and diet and physical activity in North Dakota Native Americans. This study will provide preliminary data needed for subsequent nutrition intervention studies.

An in the near future, the MNRL will be used to study the elderly. Relationships among mineral status, life-style factors, health, body composition, cognitive function, social and emotional adjustment, and daily activities will be examined. Results will be used to implement supplementation or food fortification intervention trials with an emphasis on the potential beneficial effects of improved copper, magnesium and zinc nutrition on age-related physical and mental problems, including dementia. Such studies would be difficult if not impossible to conduct if participants were required to travel to our Center. In addition to its use in research, the MNRL has been used to provide nutrition and research education to more than 1000 individuals at local and regional gatherings, including Marketplace 2002.

This first year of operation has shown that our Center is indeed mobilized to bring nutrition research and its benefits not only to the Grand Forks community, but also to communities throughout the entire region.


Last Modified: 10/23/2006