By Lauren Krizansky
Patterns, cycles and rhythms are the foundation of life. They take the form of habits that shape individuals and communities and of sequences that keep the natural world in motion. One nonconformist nutritionist is tracking particular patterns across the food system to further support his argument that it’s not only what’s for dinner that determines sickness or health — it’s also the rituals and resources that accompany every meal.
“Dietary patterns” is the term Dr. Henry J. Thompson specifically uses when he talks about the causes of illness. The former cancer prevention researcher, educated at Rutgers University in nutritional sciences and biochemistry and trained at the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Molecular Medicine, delved into the notion that a person’s diet, combined with physical exercise, could prevent disease after his colleagues concluded that reactive, synthetic treatments were the answer to chronic conditions.
“I was shocked that fruit and vegetable intake was not a strong factor in prevention,” Thompson said.
He left his mainstream research to become a professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of the Cancer Prevention Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. For the past 18 years, Thompson has infiltrated an often overlooked part of the food and farm system.
“There seems to be no room for nutrition in ag-related classes,” Thompson said, reflecting on his half-century of studies, research and teaching. “I didn’t understand enough about foods. To learn, you must hang your coffee cup where the people you are interested in hang their coffee cup. This led me to a broad interest in food crops — those eaten in large amounts.”
The result of his culinary curiosities are the dots connecting the food crop to the dietary pattern to the reduced risk of the top four lethal chronic diseases: cancer, cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and obesity.
“I want to discover what is really true,” Thompson said about human health, its relationship with food and the diseases that kill 60 percent of the global population. “There is so much hype. So much misrepresentation.”
Life, medicine and food
Thompson started the Biomedical Agriculture (BMA) initiative after Crops for Health, a CSU training program, made progress in investigating staple crop health benefits and established a relationship with the CSU School of Public Health. The program’s physical proximity to CSU agronomists allowed impromptu discussions and collaborations that enabled expansion into an effort to discover the human health benefits of most staple food crops. These accomplishments laid the foundation for Thompson and his cohort to build a place for biomedical research.
Crops for Health confronts the plant-food-cancer risk conundrum through “identifying, developing and producing food crop genotypes that show maximum potential to benefit human health while retaining adapted traits that make them profitable to grow and distribute in the global market place.” It is also developing tools and techniques required to understand how food crops prevent chronic diseases while disseminating findings to the global community via public health approaches designed to effectively promote long-term lifestyle changes
The overall goal of BMA is to identify specific genotypes of a food crop that alone, and when combined with other food crops, form a dietary pattern that reduces chronic disease risk.
According to BMA practices, every crop contains a complex chemical milieu. When a crop is prepared as a food, it might undergo a fundamental change in composition. The food is then combined with other foods to form the overall diet. The diet is the sum of its parts, but it might exhibit features not present when foods are consumed in isolation.
Diversity in the diet results in human health just like multiplicity in the cover crop field results in soil health. Across the whole food and farm system, he said, diversity can reduce chronic disease.
“It is the diverse consumption of a whole-food-based diet that results in improved health,” Thompson said. “High dietary quality comes from a diverse food pattern.”
Over time, typical food consumption patterns within a population are categorized and then compared with their chronic disease patterns. Changes in biomarkers have reflected that certain dietary patterns are associated with health promotion and disease prevention.
Though a person’s genotype is considered in this model, there is virtually no consideration of the different crop genotypes that compose the diet. Modifying diet to influence chronic disease risk without this knowledge is sometimes viewed as superficial. The emerging solution BMA presents is to delve into the crop to investigate chronic disease prevention.
“People need to be eating whole foods, not ingredient foods,” Thompson said. “We are rethinking food. There are principals emerging about the power of a food pattern.”
In this case, “we” partially means the governing physicians and policy makers.
He said recently that the medical community is giving attention to the notion that dietary diversity results in human health, but the argument often is that the consumer would take that advice to expand a preexisting eating regimen loaded with processed foods. This interpretation would then result in increased obesity and, in turn, more chronic disease.
In 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture signed off on dietary guidelines that champion both healthy eating patterns and Thompson’s other preventative finding: physical exercise. The guidelines specify to follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan, to consider cultural and personal preferences to make the shift to a sustainable healthy diet and to support healthy eating patterns for all.
“The problem is nutrition is not represented in a way the physicians take seriously from a medical perspective,” Thompson said. “This is the interface between agriculture and human health.”
A study in dry beans
Thompson’s research plate is filled with wheat, rice, apples, potatoes, peaches and pulses. These staple crops are what provide many populations meals across the globe. Understanding the pattern of the widely eaten foods seems the most logical approach to Thompson if he is to improve health across cultures.
Pulses are the dry, edible seeds of plants in the legume family. They are a category of superfoods that includes chickpeas, lentils, dry peas and beans. Their role in the dietary pattern is to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and to help with the management of blood sugar levels and diabetes, according to the American Pulse Association. Pulses are high in fiber and do not cause blood sugar levels to rise as much as sugary or starchy low-fiber foods. They take longer to break down and, in return, provide longer-lasting energy. Research shows that eating pulses can lower blood cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and help with body weight management, all of which are risk factors for heart disease. Pulses are a source of prebiotic fiber, which is the preferred food of gut bacteria, which contributes to good gut health — another factor Thompson deems crucial for successful preventative living.
“People love to eat and can afford these staple crops,” he said. “Today, pulse consumption is down, and that is not a good thing. Cancer is linked to gut health … Usually, gut health is linked to a deeper immune system deficiency.”
In 2003, Thompson also initiated collaborative research with Mark Brick, a dry bean plant breeder working in the CSU Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.
In two independent BMA experiments, according to Thompson’s research, a twofold variation in cancer preventive activity was associated with the bean genotype domestication center. Andean white kidney beans were found to have twice the cancer inhibitory activity as navy beans from the Midwest. A twofold reduction in tumor mass accompanied the effect, indicating that the protective mechanism is likely mediated either via the inhibition of cell proliferation or the induction of apoptotic cell death in transformed cell populations.
Two carcinogenesis experiments observed the same cancer inhibitory bean genotype ranking by domestication center.
A dose-response study was also completed and showed that small red dry beans reduced the carcinogenic response.
Biomedical Ag in Action
Teaching breast cancer survivors why they should eat healing foods has shown Thompson a not-so-scientific reasons why food patterns are hard to break and equally as hard to form.
“Survivors are highly educated people,” said Thompson, who has participated in seven federally funded cancer dietary intervention projects. “Yet, I still feel I need to tell them that we are eating a cuisine and that it is not a diet.
He directs his students to eat 12 to 17 servings of vegetables a day and make meals out of only two or three ingredients. In spite of everything the survivors have overcome to sit in front of him and share a meal, he said often their biggest concern is whether or not they need to buy organic.
In his research, Thompson addresses the subject from the other side, assessing genetically modified crops. Instead of leaning on science supporting or dismissing the concerns, BMA prioritizes traditional breeding approaches, including single-gene, single-chemical solutions that are not likely to be efficacious for chronic disease prevention. It also trusts that the introduction of one gene is likely to alter the activity of other genes, which would lead to positive and/or negative biosynthetic activity pattern changes associated with chronic disease prevention. Additionally, BMA considers that benefits from a genetically modified crop might disappear when combined with other foods in a typical diet, negating the effort that went into genetically modified crop production. The altered agronomic characteristics of the genetically modified organism might also diminish the likelihood that it will be widely grown.
“My colleagues tell me that it — organic — is important and that it is good for the environment,” Thompson said, “but then there is the question of production and yields. I can’t tell you there is a definite benefit. Can you afford it? If you can, well, why not? There is no harm, and it probably does some good, but there is no reason not to eat conventional. Do not feel guilty.”
That guilt can negatively affect the mind, he said — the mental health of consumers. He hears the same sentiments when he is asked if it is better to “buy fresh.”
“Our food is so intertwined with our culture,” Thompson said. “Sometimes the most unhealthy crop is the freshest because of the abuse it will take in the kitchen.”
The food system works hard to package and deliver food in an appealing smell, taste and texture, he said. If you eat a mix of fresh, frozen, canned and moderately processed foods, anyone can reduce the risk of or rehabilitate from chronic disease.
Training, discovery and dissemination
Critical thinking is important to Thompson. He teaches several online graduate classes in the CSU Horticulture and Landscape design department. Exposing his students to as many conflicting views around biomedical agriculture is part of his finely tuned teaching pattern.
An obstacle in developing a curriculum for BMA is a lack of integration among offered courses. For example, according to BMA practices, a plant breeding course that does not discuss biofortification or a nutrition course that ignores aspects of plant diversity does little to build a student’s broader conceptual framework.
“Agriculture’s goal is to make enough food to maintain and increase society while public health accuses agriculture of ruining the environment,” Thompson said. “They don’t recognize the small profits and the level of risk or how international and domestic markets work. This is where we need critical thinking.”
BMA distinguishes itself from its counterparts because of its transdisciplinary approach. Thompson invites participants “to develop a shared conceptual framework that integrates and extends discipline-based concepts, theories and methods to address a common goal.”
Standard components of BMA training include experimental design and statistical methods for agriculture and biomedical research, experience with “omics” technologies and bioinformatic techniques, and course work that exposes students to plant breeding, nutrition and biomedical science, according to BMA practices. Group discussions and online inter-university course work ensure students gain access to a broad set of perspectives on agriculture and health.
Thompson said that through taking an honest approach to his students he has learned how to mentor, to expose relevance in work and to provide support from start to finish.
“Our [higher education] system discourages understanding,” Thompson said. “The students that are on the fringe, in that quasi-science, are missing critical thinking. This is critical to the interface of agriculture and human health.
He said he often brings to light the skeptical modern medicine practitioners that mock the notion of proactive, healthy living. He chooses to model for his students thoughtful methods to disseminate their approaches and visions in a society that, in the opinion of some, greatly supports reactive living, which is essentially prolonged dying.
“We need agriculture, human health and all people working together,” Thompson said. “We need fact and truth, not a bunch of semi-scientific concepts. If we don’t make the change to whole foods, the result will be pain, suffering and low productivity.”
Lauren Krizansky is an agricultural journeywoman. She loves, lives and works with her partner, Brendon Rockey, on Rockey Farms in Center, Colorado.