Discoveries Spring 2014

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2014

Buying into a Bad Diet

College students who live off campus but purchase food at campus-area venues have diets that resemble those of consumers who frequent fast food restaurants, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Although previous research indicated that young adults who prepare food at home had healthier diets than those who purchased most of their meals at fast food restaurants, it was not known where eating on campus fell into the equation.

Lead researcher Jennifer Pelletier and colleague Melissa Laska examined the diets of 1,059 students living off campus at a two-year community college and a four-year public university in the Twin Cities. The venues studied included food and beverages purchased from à la carte facilities such as a student union, vending machines, and from a restaurant or store within walking distance of campus. Dining halls were not included. The study found that young adults who frequently purchased campus food had higher fat and sugar intake and skipped meals more often than their peers who carried food with them from home. In addition to having lower fat and sugar intake and skipping fewer meals, students who brought food from home also ate more fruits, vegetables, fiber, dairy, and calcium.

The study was published in the November 4, 2013, issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Filling the Harvest Gap

Harvesting existing cropland more frequently could substantially increase global food production without the need to clear more land for agriculture, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE).

IonE postdoctoral research scholar Deepak Ray and director Jonathan Foley tapped a massive database of cropping records that the institute has compiled from around the world, tracking global harvest trends of 177 crops between 1961 and 2011. They uncovered bountiful “harvest gaps”—the difference between land’s annual potential and actual harvest frequency. Africa, Latin America, and Asia have the highest concentration of potential gains. Researchers found that closing harvest gaps could theoretically boost production more than 44 percent worldwide.

Increased cropping frequency holds promise for reducing the pressure to destroy rain forest and for mitigating risk under a changing climate. The researchers noted, however, that efforts to increase harvest frequency must take into account the need to avoid the deterioration of soil, water, and the agricultural land base.

“The challenge for our generation is to meet growing food demands without destroying our environment. Increasing cropland harvest frequency is another piece toward solving the global food security puzzle,” Foley says.

The research was published in the November 25, 2013, issue of Environmental Research Letters.

Mentally Ill Priced Out of Treatment

A new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health shows that people with mental health problems are more likely to have public health insurance—Medicaid or Medicare—or be uninsured than have private insurance. Medicaid and Medicare were found to provide the most affordable means to access mental health treatment, while cost was an obstacle to treatment among the uninsured and the privately insured.

Kathleen Rowan, a doctoral student in health services research, policy, and administration in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, led the study, which examined national data from 1999 to 2010 for trends in access and cost barriers. The study concluded that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), because it designates mental health and substance abuse services to be essential health benefits, has potential to provide coverage for currently uninsured people with mental health issues. However, in states that opt out of Medicaid expansion, some people at risk for serious mental illness could remain unable to receive treatment. Further, the study noted that the persistence of cost barriers among those with private insurance suggests that the current financing of care in that market is insufficient and has implications for reform under the ACA.

The study was published in the October 2013 issue of Health Affairs.

What the Nodes Know

Cancer patients don’t die from primary tumors—they die from metastasis, the process where cancer cells migrate to other parts of the body. But little research has been done on metastasis.

Akhouri Sinha, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development, along with colleagues at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Health Care System, examined microscope slides of 32 patients. They found that in some nodes and in some patients, the immune system killed cancer cells. But in others, the cancer cells were resistant to the workings of the immune system.

Researchers hypothesized that patients whose nodes showed little or no cancer cell death may require more aggressive therapy than those whose nodes showed otherwise. Sinha suggested that pathologists, who typically report only whether or not lymph nodes are positive, perform a simple test that would show the extent of cell death in the nodes. With that knowledge, physicians could adjust patients’ therapy accordingly.

The study was published in the September 2013 issue of Anticancer Research.


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