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Campus News
     
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue:  March 25, 2002
Volume 37, Number 17

COE nutrition professor studies Nigerian diet

By Laurie Mellas-Ramirez

Conn in the Fulani village. She will return to Nigeria this summer.UNM College of Education Assistant Professor Carole Conn and UNM students gave back this month to northern Nigerian villagers who have been the focal point of Conn’s nutrition research on cardiovascular disease risk factors.

Last week, Conn and the UNM Nutrition Club sold a selection of foods made from Nigerian recipes with proceeds going to rebuild homes destroyed by fire in a Fulani village near the city of Jos, Nigeria.

Last year, Conn and several researchers studied the diet of the Fulani, semi-nomadic pastoralists who consume a low calorie diet high in saturated fats, do not use tobacco and are physically active.

The Fulani’s risk of cardiovascular disease is the subject of a paper co-authored by Conn and published in December’s American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Co-authors Robert H. Glew and Dorothy J. VanderJagt of the UNM School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry direct the U.S. Nigeria Minority Biomedical Scholars Exchange Program, which sponsored the research in Jos. Nigerian and American collaborators Margaret Williams, Samuel M. Cadena, Michael Crossey and Seline N. Okolo also authored the article.

“The Fulani do not have risk factors that show up in Americans who eat a diet high in fat,” Conn reports, noting that one reason could be their active lifestyle.

For generations, the Fulani men have worked as cattle herders. The Fulani women haul water and gather firewood, shake milk in gourds to make butter and pound millet by hand as part of labor-intensive cooking practices. “We haven’t quantified their activities, but that is a possibility for future research,” Conn says.

“The Fulani take their cattle wide distances to find food. For generations they have been cattle herders. They are a genetically distinct, tall and lean group of individuals,” Conn says. “The Fulani eat a lot of animal products and drink milk from the cows. It’s a high saturated fat diet, but not a high calorie diet.”

The researchers measured serum lipid, homocysteine (a breakdown product of the amino acid methionine), folate and vitamin B-12 concentrations in Fulani men and women and assessed nutrients in their diet.

Results of the analyses were compared to acceptable U.S. ranges. The energy content of the diet was found to be low and protein content high. Nearly one-half of energy was provided by fat and half of that saturated fat. The diet provided substantial amounts of vitamin B-12, barely adequate amounts of vitamin C and only one-third the recommended allowance of folate. HDL cholesterol and triacylglycerol concentrations in Fulani adults were within acceptable ranges and the LDL cholesterol below the range, indicating a favorable cardiovascular risk profile for serum lipids.

The mean serum homocysteine level of Fulani men was above the normal range for Americans. High serum homocysteine is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, but is not yet an established risk factor. Because the male Fulani do not have the more recognized risk factors such as high serum cholesterol, smoking, overweight, sedentary lifestyle, future research may shed light on the importance of high serum homocysteine in isolation of other risk factors.

The study concluded that despite a diet high in saturated fat, Fulani adults have a low risk of cardiovascular disease, at least in terms of established risk factors, a finding likely due to high activity level and low total energy intake.

Conn, who has a Ph.D in exercise physiology and is also a registered dietitian, R.D., has been at UNM since 1998. “I came to Albuquerque to be a scientist,” she says of her prior position at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute. “I studied the effects of nutrition and exercise on immune functions.”

She is now on the faculty of the Nutrition Dietetics Program in the College of Education. The undergraduate curriculum leads to a bachelor of science in nutrition/dietetics and provides students with the course work necessary to meet requirements established by the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Approval by ADA ensures that graduates can be considered for post-graduate training leading to eligibility for the registration examination for dietitians and registered dietitian (R.D.) status.

Conn provides the nutrition component for UNM Biochemistry Department studies focusing on cardiovascular diseases. She serves on the Faculty Senate International Affairs Committee. A fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, in 1999, she was recognized by UNM for modeling best professional practices in scholarship.

She plans to return to Nigeria this summer to continue studying Nigerian foods and dietary patterns.