Your Grandmother Was Right

Healthy foods from Manitoba fields

Dr. Carla Taylor proves in the lab what our grandmothers told us at the kitchen table.

“They would have said, ‘eat beans and peas – they’re good for you,’” says Taylor, Principal Investigator, Metabolic Nutrition, Canadian Centre for Agri-food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre. They were right from a basic nutritional standpoint, says Taylor, but science demands evidence and wants to know exactly why a particular food is good for you.

“This really describes the essence of what CCARM is about,” says Taylor, “taking what we can grow,these foods that we know are nutritionally good for us, and using the latest scientific methods to show that, yes, they’re doing some of the same things as the medications we have available, and sometimes these foods work even better.”

Taylor’s face lights up when she talks about her work. She’s a farm girl at heart, raised on the family farm in Oak Lake, Manitoba. She has a soft spot for agriculture and a deep fascination about the relationship between food and health.

“This is in a group of people who were being managed with the best of medical care and were on all the various medications – but yet diet was still making a difference.”

Pulses, canola and cardiovascular health

One of her main projects looks at the positive impacts that pulse crops can have on human health. Specifically, Taylor and her team are looking at how pulses like dry beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils might help people with peripheral artery disease – a condition that reduces blood flow to the legs and makes it more difficult to get around. It’s an advanced form of cardiovascular disease. Taylor, her colleague Dr. Peter Zahradka, and their team, have been investigating the impact of pulses in these individuals.

“We gave them half-a-cup of these pulses every day for eight weeks and at the end of the study we were able to show that they have better blood flow to the legs. And we showed that we lowered their blood cholesterol, too,” explains Taylor. “This is in a group of people who were being managed with the best of medical care and were on all the appropriate medications – but yet diet still made a difference. I think that’s an important message to get out to people – we still need to believe in diet and that it still makes a huge difference, even if we have certain forms of cardiovascular disease and we need to take certain medications.”

Another area of focus for Taylor is canola oil and trying to truly understand all of its health benefits. It was at the University of Manitoba in the early 1970s that canola was first produced by plant breeding, and Taylor’s nutrition professors at the U of M were doing some of the first human studies with canola oil when she was a student. Today, as a professor in the U of M’s Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, you could say she’s come full circle. Canola is no less fascinating today than it was when she was a student in the 1980s. The difference is that today, we know more about canola oil and the specific benefits of certain dietary fats.

Oil Wars: Olive vs Canola

“We are also interested in how the type of fat in the diet is affecting blood vessel health. There is lots of interest in the Mediterranean type diet, and of course everyone relates immediately to olive oil as being the oil that’s consumed in that diet. But canola oil has a very similar profile, and in fact, canola oil has even more omega-3 than olive oil does, so we’re getting our monounsaturated fats, plus the omega-3,” says Taylor of canola oil’s benefits. “I think it’s potentially a superior oil…”

Aside from canola oil’s possible role in keeping blood vessels elastic and healthy, the Taylor/Zahradka team are looking at the role canola oil can play for patients with metabolic syndrome, which she describes as corresponding to the early stages at which point people’s bodies are starting to show the changes that will one day develop into cardiovascular disease or diabetes – “maybe they’re getting a little bit overweight, or there’s a little bit higher blood pressure or blood glucose,” she explains. “We’re looking at what we can do with diet to prevent or slow down progression to those chronic diseases that start to impact someone’s well-being.”

Beyond the basics

We’ve learned a lot about nutrition in the years that have passed since Taylor’s high school home economics teacher in Virden encouraged her to study the field in university. What’s exciting for Taylor and her colleagues is making new discoveries and learning more about food and human health – and it goes beyond basic nutrition.

“When I was initially studying nutrition, we were thinking of food as providing us only with nutrients. Those are the compounds that we need in order to survive and our body can’t make those compounds. If we don’t get, say something like vitamin C, then we end up with a deficiency disease. Everybody relates to the story years ago of sailors getting scurvy because they weren’t getting their fruits and vegetables on those long ocean journeys,” she explains. “What’s really interesting nowadays is we’re thinking not only about the nutrients, but what we call ‘bioactive compounds’ that are in our food. So we know now that there are hundreds or thousands of other compounds or chemicals in our food that potentially have health benefits. Some of the research now is trying to identify what are some of these unique compounds that, in the low levels that we consume in our food everyday, are very healthy for us – and maybe if we could isolate and understand some of these compounds further, they might lead to some sort of treatment for people who already have a particular disease.”

Taylor and her team at CCARM are well-equipped to unravel the mysteries and explore the enormous health potential of Manitoba crops and other foods.

To learn more about Dr. Taylor’s research visit sbrc.ca/taylor

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