UAB Magazine Online Features
UAB Focuses on Food Security
By Glenny Brock
David Buys and Heather Lee are part of a campuswide effort to educate students and the Birmingham community on ways to improve "food security," or access to healthy foods.
Viewed from above, Birmingham’s urban landscape reveals plenty of office buildings, parking decks, retail centers, roads, and houses. What you won’t see, in certain parts of town, are grocery stores. Instead, you’ll spot convenience stores, often sandwiched in between two or three competing fast-food franchises. These are “food deserts,” the increasingly common term for urban districts whose residents lack access to fresh, healthy food.
Birmingham has dozens of food deserts, but solutions are beginning to take root. In addition to more than two dozen community gardens across the metro area (many of which are located at schools and churches in low-income neighborhoods), a network of farmers markets, food-recovery programs, community-development organizations, and local business groups are working on issues of food security, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” According to a 2008 report from the agriculture department, 13.3 percent of households in Alabama don’t meet that definition.
Until now, UAB’s role in the local “food justice” movement has been almost entirely research-based. But according to David Buys, a Ph.D. candidate and graduate assistant in the UAB medical sociology program, that dynamic is changing with the launch of the UAB Hunger and Food Security Initiative (HAFSI). “It’s about bringing together community work and course work, activism and research,” Buys says.
Exploring the Food-Cancer Connection
By Tara Hulen
Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D.
• Connects the UAB Cancer Center’s basic nutrition science and lifestyle-intervention programs in a translational and interdisciplinary approach
• Conducted some of the largest studies on the links among diet, hormones, genes, and cancer progression; effective lifestyle interventions to improve cancer survivorship; and metabolic/body composition changes in response to cancer treatment
• Serves on boards and panels for the American Cancer Society, several National Institutes of Health standing and ad-hoc committees, and the World Cancer Fund
• Named a Komen Professor of Survivorship
• Holds an undergraduate degree in nutrition science and chemistry from the University of Michigan; a master’s in nutrition from Texas Woman’s University; and a doctorate in nutrition science from Syracuse University
The eye-opening, life-reassessing shock of a cancer diagnosis can also be one of life’s teachable moments. For two decades, that insight—finding hope in the midst of catastrophe—has driven the research of Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., the new associate director for cancer prevention and control at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and Webb Chair in Nutrition Sciences at the UAB School of Health Professions. She is an international leader in understanding how dietary changes affect cancer survivorship.
Confronted with a diagnosis of cancer, many patients are open to diet and lifestyle changes that can help them get and stay healthy, says Demark-Wahnefried. “There’s a great opportunity in cancer survivorship, because more and more people are surviving their cancer, particularly for breast and prostate cancer, where more than 90 percent of people diagnosed are surviving. We’ve had good success in actually making people better than they were before they had cancer. There are lots of things that can be done.”
It’s especially important to take advantage of this opportunity, she continues, “because although people survive their cancer, they’re at more risk for having a second cancer once they’ve been diagnosed. They’re also at more risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, and other illnesses” due to weakened bodies, pre-existing conditions, genetic predisposition, and other factors.
Understanding the Chemotherapy-Weight Gain Dilemma
Cancer Center director Ed Partridge, M.D., recruited Demark-Wahnefried to UAB in spring 2010 after she had spent three years at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which followed a long research career at Duke University.
It was the chance to work with a renowned Duke researcher that drew Demark-Wahnefried into the field. She became involved in a major study investigating the reasons why women with breast cancer tend to gain weight while on chemotherapy.
This weight gain is a concern, Demark-Wahnefried explains, because 71 percent of breast cancer patients who are diagnosed after menopause are overweight or obese to begin with. And even though the exact nature of the relationship is still unclear, it is apparent that excess weight is harmful to women with breast cancer. “What’s theorized is that body weight affects hormonal levels,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “It also affects adipokines and cytokines, which are inflammatory biomarkers that probably feed the cancer.”
Before the study began, Demark-Wahnefried explains, the clichéd assumption went like this: Women were gaining weight because they indulged in extra comfort foods while dealing with the stresses of chemotherapy. But metabolic tests revealed that women actually eat less when they are on chemotherapy, she says. The culprit is the fatigue caused by chemotherapy, which leads women to become less active; that, in turn, brings about a loss of lean body mass. “When you lose lean body mass, it makes an impact,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “You can’t eat as many calories as you once did.”
The quantity of muscle mass lost was astonishing, she recalls. “The amount we saw just wasting away from these women in one year after diagnosis was comparable to 10 years of normal aging.” Chemotherapy targets quickly metabolizing cells, including muscle, she says, “so it makes sense.”
DISCO Helps Kids Catch the Rhythm of Writing
By Kathy Seale
UAB writing instructor Elizabeth Hughey, left, along with a group of volunteers such as UAB alum Lauren Mills, right, is exploring ways to bring creative writing opportunities to Birmingham-area kids.
For the moment, the Woodlawn headquarters of the Desert Island Supply Co. (DISCO) is gutted and, well, deserted. But that will change, probably sooner rather than later. The speed at which things move for the curiously named creative-writing program—co-founded by UAB writing instructor Elizabeth Hughey and her writer husband, Chip Brantley—is impressive.
In January, the couple (along with a core group of about 20 volunteers) began exploring ways to bring more creative-writing opportunities to Birmingham-area kids. “Whether you’re 10 or 50, it’s a barrier if you can’t write,” says volunteer Laurel Mills, who holds a master’s degree in English from UAB. “The sooner we encourage people to get involved with creative writing, the better.”
Chasing Challenges with New School of Medicine Dean
By Charles Buchanan
Ray L. Watts, M.D., made the choice that would change his life when the phone rang one sunny Saturday in April. The college senior had earned a spot in one of the nation’s most prestigious graduate engineering programs. But he turned it down that day. He wanted to go to medical school to chase a bigger challenge.
Thirty-four years later, another decision has presented Watts with his greatest challenge yet: leading the UAB School of Medicine into a new era of American health care as dean and senior vice president for medicine.