The questions of how different macronutrient and micronutrient combinations interact in the body and whether or not commonly abused drugs and foods metabolize similarly have yet to be answered completely by the food sciences community.
These topics have been focus points for Dr. Alexandra DiFeliceantonio, a Fralin researcher and assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, since August 2019.
How food and the body interact with each other is an important topic today, as DiFeliceantonio explains, because dietary factors are the second preventable causes of deaths, following smoking, in the United States. “It will really benefit the community, and everyone, to know more about what is going on when people consume (high-fat foods), and make more informed decisions about what they choose to eat,” DiFeliceantonio said.
“Also, when we are thinking about creating interventions for weight loss or for managing diseases that are heavily influenced from diet, what is the best way to help those people, knowing of the underlying neuroscience and metabolic factors that are contributing to those behaviors?” DiFeliceantonio said.
In her lab at Fralin’s Center for Transformative Research on Health Behaviors, DiFeliceantonio is learning how different foods and bodies interact based on researching animals’ gratification toward opioids and foods, like feeding M&M’s to rats, during her postgraduate education at the University of Michigan.
“If we think about a doughnut that has high fat and high sugar as a stimulus that is unlike other foods, just like a drug-of-abuse is unlike other natural stimulus, then thinking of these two allow us to learn from them and ask new questions about what is happening in the brain,” DiFeliceantonio said.
More specifically, however, DiFeliciantonio is interested in studying the long-term effects of food motivation on the body.
“I first got interested in modern foods by really thinking about how high-fat, high-sugar foods are some things that we never encountered in our evolutionary environment and how our brain reacts to those differently,” DiFeliceantonio said. “Maybe (foods work) in a way that is similar to how it interacts with drugs of abuse.”
As Virginia’s stay-at-home orders are effective, the lab is focusing on collecting publicly available functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data and asking questions about why a certain variable, for instance, correlates with a certain brain behavior. DiFeliceantonio is also beginning to guide her graduate students on how to interpret large data sets during quarantine as well.
DiFeliceantonio received institutional review board (IRB) approval recently, and she will begin recruitment for her lab once stay-at-home orders are lifted. When the day comes, she will focus on the central questions of carbohydrates in the body and understanding if metabolizing satisfying foods quicker is more “rewarding” than metabolizing foods slower.
To complete the job, DiFeliceantonio’s lab will create drinks, similar to vitaminwater, which will consist of flavors people have never encountered. The lab will consequently study how quickly test subjects metabolize calories and scan them with the use of fMRI and study the brain on how it reacts to new flavors
However, DiFeliceantonio’s research on high-fat foods and dopamine in the body is published.