A University of Chicago team is exploring how a series of cooking classes, focused on nutrition and making better food choices, impact participants’ gastrointestinal microbiomes and overall health. Supported in part by the GI Research Foundation, they are seeing quick improvements to participants’ gut health that may motivate people to keep eating better.

CHICAGO, November 29, 2023, Crain’s Chicago BusinessLike many teenagers, the University of Chicago’s Dr. Edwin McDonald worked fast food in high school. But his experience was different than most. While others were barely keeping the french fries warm, Dr. McDonald was creating off-menu recipes.

“My McDonald’s had a secret menu. Totally inappropriate, but I was 16. Nobody’s paying attention. The customers thought it was cool, and I’m making them omelets and stuff you can’t usually get,” he said.

“I learned from that experience that there are a lot of families going into McDonald’s every single day … I remember seeing people bringing their insulin into the restaurant, taking their pills at the restaurant. Something just didn’t seem right. It didn’t make sense to me.”

Now an assistant professor at UChicago Medicine and director of its Community Health in Digestive Diseases program, McDonald remains an innovator among his peers. McDonald and his research collaborators offered community cooking classes focused on nutrition in late 2022 and early 2023. They are now studying the impact that those classes had on participants’ gut health and microbiome.

He recently received a third year of funding from the GI Research Foundation for this work – totaling $225,000 to date. Here’s how the program works:

After conducting a series of focus groups to help shape the curriculum, the team taught a set of six-week classes to 34 people from 12 ZIP codes immediately surrounding the University of Chicago. Many of these communities are considered “food swamps,” areas where there might be plenty of stores and restaurants but that offer unhealthy food to local residents. Almost 20 percent of these community members use SNAP benefits, and about half of them are considered food insecure, according to McDonald.

The students in these classes learned about how to cook foods using healthier ingredients and techniques. Think of alternatives like fixing dinner at home rather than hitting DoorDash, baking chicken instead of frying it, introducing more vegetables into meals, and avoiding ultra-processed junk foods. The classes were led by Jeannine Wise, a chef and program director at Good Food is Good Medicine, which partners with local organizations to encourage healthy eating.

“We’re focused on vegetable-heavy, culturally appropriate, tasty meals, on increasing health literacy, and on reducing social isolation,” McDonald said. “What we eat is a powerful, modifiable determinant of our health.” In fact, poor diet and activity patterns have surpassed smoking as the leading preventable factor contributing to premature deaths in the United States, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Health.

Students in the cooking classes reported any behavior changes through surveys. They also took an unusual step for this sort of program. They provided stool samples before and after the class was completed, so that researchers could better understand how their eating habits impacted their gut microbiome.

Working with the University of Chicago’s Dr. Eugene Chang, the team analyzed the characteristics of the participants’ intestinal microbiomes. They looked at metrics like composition of the microbiota and various metabolites including leucine and sugar alcohols.

“First, we wanted to know if there is actually a change before and after the classes. And there is. These metrics are very good at telling us about the health of the participants, and they show that adjusting the microbiome through diet will improve people’s metabolic health,” Chang said.

The study has already demonstrated that teaching people to cook has a detectable, positive physiological impact. The findings also help Chang and other researchers as they develop diagnostic tools to measure overall microbiome health and establish a typical range of how much different types of bacteria, amino acids, metabolites, and other features are typically found in a healthy gut.

“None of us have those tools today, which would help us determine what to eat, how much, and when. But this is the first of many projects. We can already see that there is a lot more we can do and that we can have a great impact,” Chang said.

Results are preliminary and represent a pilot project for a larger study supported by the GI Research Foundation and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (DK042086). Some are already striking, nonetheless. The team found, for example, that the amount of sugar alcohols detected in participants’ samples decreased significantly after taking the classes. That tells researchers that participants are eating less junk food.

“Sugar alcohols are a key marker of ultra-processed foods,” McDonald explained. “We can detect – by analyzing the microbiota and some of the metabolites in the stool – that people are consuming less ultra-processed foods. Which is fascinating.”

That’s not only fascinating for researchers but exciting for participants. They are able to quickly see tangible evidence that what they are doing is having a positive impact on their health.

“The problem with nutrition overall – one of the reasons it’s difficult to study and difficult for people to grasp – is that a lot of changes happen over years. Whereas, with the gut microbiome, with a change in your diet – specifically one that includes more fruits and vegetables, less processed foods, and less red meat – you can see tangible changes in about four days. It demonstrates to participants that there are measurable short-term benefits,” McDonald said.

“It’s a motivator. Definitely. Hands down. No different than the scale is a motivator for someone who is trying to lose weight. You hop on the scale, you see that you’re down 10 pounds. ‘Oh, I’m going to keep exercising.’ Same here. You see these changes to your microbiota. You know those are important, and you keep going.”

About the GI Research Foundation

The GI Research Foundation was founded in 1961 by grateful patients and friends of the late Dr. Joseph B. Kirsner, a pioneer in gastroenterology who devoted his life to medicine, teaching, and patient care. Today, the University of Chicago Medicine’s Digestive Diseases Center, which is supported by the foundation, is internationally recognized for research-driven medicine and its team of highly specialized physicians. For more information, see: https://giresearchfoundation.org/

About the University of Chicago Digestive Diseases Center

The Digestive Diseases Center at the University of Chicago Medicine is a collaborative, multidisciplinary network of physicians, researchers and affiliated health professionals who share a legacy of innovation and a common purpose: to improve the lives of patients who suffer from digestive diseases. Many of the clinical research infrastructure and translational research laboratories are supported by NIDDK P30 Digestive Disease Research Core Center (DK042086) and T32 Training Grant for Digestive Health and Diseases (DK007074) grants. For more information, see: https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/conditions-services/digestive-diseases

Contact Information

Jackie Casey
Executive Director

SOURCE: GI Research Foundation