Joanne Slavin is an eggs and potatoes woman. She loves milk too. And she enjoys dessert. Slavin’s life—or more precisely, her life’s work—revolves around food.
The food scientist teaches hundreds of students each year about nutrition as a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition. In the lab, she examines the foods people eat, investigating everything from how increasing fiber intake affects satiety to the role whole grains play in preventing disease.
Students love her. She commands immense respect in nutrition research circles and ranks as one of the national media’s most sought-after nutrition experts.
Slavin’s profile rose even more when she became one of 13 health and nutrition experts selected for the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The committee acted as architects of the recommended American diet.
Everyone is so different, it’s difficult to come up with one diet and say it works for everyone, she says. “Humans are very adaptable and can live on very different diets. So to say a high-fat diet is bad, a high-carbohydrate diet is bad—it just makes us look bad as nutritionists,” Slavin says.
“We forget that people in Asia—80 percent of their calories come from carbohydrates and they do really well on it,” Slavin says. “Eskimos are on 80 percent fat. That is really high. Well, a lot of them don’t have heart disease. They do well.”
Slavin’s interest in and relationship with food began in her childhood. She credits her farm and 4-H experience for building her interest in nutrition and food science. She attended the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and became a registered dietitian. Because of a clerical error, she didn’t get an internship as expected. She decided to go to graduate school and received a master’s and then a doctoral degree in nutritional science.
Today, fiber remains her core research area. “We look at the physiological effects of fiber. It’s not very glamorous,” Slavin says.
“People eat fiber and it doesn’t get broken down and then they excrete it. That’s our business: looking at different fiber and what happens along the way.”
That means Slavin and student researchers give people diets, collect fecal samples and measure the microflora in the fecal samples.
About half of the work Slavin does now centers on what affects gut microflora—a subject that is experiencing a resurgence of interest recently, she says. Gut microflora or gut microbiota, as it is also known, is the collection of microscopic living organisms in humans’ intestines.
Slavin and her students also focus on satiety—one of the few areas of her research not involving fecal samples. This was a godsend for students who wanted to avoid anything involving fecal samples, but still wanted to work with her, Slavin says while laughing.
Graduate student Justin Carlson sought Slavin out as an advisor. “She’s open to trying new things and new ideas,” says Carlson, who will study gut microbiota and psychology of the gut. “She’s always encouraging you. She’ll encourage you to always apply for fellowships and scholarships,” he says. “She tells us to give it a shot. You never know what can happen.”
At times, nutrition experts do lack popularity, though. Those looking for a strict nutritionist—the type who says “eat this, not that”—won’t find that in Slavin. So what advice does Slavin dish out if a friend, family member or acquaintance at a party seeks her expertise?
“That’s tough. It’s really hard,” Slavin says. “I think food has so many more facets to it—it’s got social meaning—getting together and having parties,” Slavin says. “There are all these things related to food and we can forget how important that is to people.”
Breakfast. She loves eggs and hash browns, she says. And then poses a question to herself: “What would be my last meal on earth?”
“It would be breakfast: strong coffee, an egg sandwich with some really thick, smoked bacon, or a BLT with a fresh tomato and thick bacon on some whole grain bread or toast. That would be pretty good too,” Slavin muses.
“If you look at bacon nutritionally, it’s high in fat and has nitrates. I can give you 10 reasons why you shouldn’t have it,” she says. “But, it’s pretty darn tasty.”
– Patty Mattern