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To D, or Not to D?

By Maryalice Yakutchik

Keith West has an anti-inflammation diet: “Eat fruits and vegetables now and forever, and take your morning stroll on sunny days.”

It’s not that the George G. Graham Professor of Infant and Child Nutrition is anti- anti-inflammation diets or supplements. It’s just that he has yet to find any that pass muster for the well-nourished masses.

Supplement use has yet to deliver on utopian health promises, says West, DrPH ’86, MPH ’79. “That doesn’t mean vitamins and minerals aren’t important,” West says. “It just means we have often erred in our thinking about how, and maybe when, to intervene nutritionally on processes that lead to cardiovascular disease, or cancer.”

As part of the team in the mid-1980s that showed vitamin A supplements saved the sight and lives of Indonesian children, West believes in nutritional magic bullets, but cautions against a one-size-fits-all mentality in terms of who will benefit from what.

Current nutrition research at the Bloomberg School is focused on how the body responds to infection in the presence or absence of nutrients, and how malnutrition influences inflammation. Infection and inflammation—not just hunger or starvation—can actually cause mal-nutrition, which in turn can hamper one’s ability to fight infection.

“Immune molecules require energy, protein, fats and micronutrients to do all the functions that have to go on during a healthy inflammatory response,” he says.

Vitamin D, for example, recently has been shown to be a frontline defense against infection in the intestinal tract, helping to produce peptides that kill bacteria on contact, says West, and also is linked to asthma and chronic disease.

Reluctant to jump on any supplement bandwagon, West says that when his primary doctor last year declared his vitamin D levels low, he refused to pop a daily pill.

Instead, he vowed to change his lifestyle to get more sunlight so his own body could produce vitamin D naturally.

“But either it’s been raining or I’ve been in a plane or air-conditioned office, and not out getting sun for half an hour a day, like I planned,” he admits. “So I started this past week to take vitamin D.”

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