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Cooking Up Solutions

A visit with Chris Hardin, Professor, Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology

By Jessica Huang
Published: - Topics: health healthy food agriculture diet fast food

He calls it “fire in the gut.” It’s the excitement, the burning drive to work through a problem and see the solution. It’s staying up at night, turning something over and over in your head and feeling exhilarated when you finally come up with an answer, says Chris Hardin, Professor and Chair of the Nutritional Sciences Department.

Hardin felt the fire for the first time when he was a graduate student working on metabolism. His mentor had posed a question to which he didn’t know the answer, and Hardin was intrigued.
“I spent a week in the library and came up with what I thought was a very novel answer to his question,” he recalls. “I formed my masters thesis on that idea and have been running with that idea ever since.”

And now, Hardin has a new fire. With his permanent smile surrounded by a short-cropped red beard, he explains that the first phase in constructing a new space-age metabolic kitchen, one that will design healthy foods and teach people how to select them, is currently underway at MU. In collaboration with multiple departments on campus, Hardin hopes this research endeavor will help fight the current obesity epidemic in the United States.

But that’s not the only thing Hardin has cooking. For the past twenty years, he has been examining the way cells metabolize the elements in food. “What is important with cell metabolism is just like in real estate,” he quips, “location, location, location.” So far, he has found that cells are efficient because the energy-producing parts are right next to the energy-consuming parts.

Hardin is also working to understand some of the dangerous side effects of popular cholesterol-lowering medications. These drugs, commonly called statins, have been linked to side effects such as muscle pain and weakness. Researchers have been looking for a particular marker – a protein released by the liver and muscles when they are being damaged – to assess statins’ effects. Unfortunately, Hardin reports, the protein is not specific to statins alone. So his lab is trying to develop a different marker – one that will more conclusively identify whether damage is related to taking these drugs. “Then we will know, when somebody comes in complaining of muscle pain and weakness, whether they just had a bad weekend or if it is the beginning of muscle damage that could be something quite dangerous,” Hardin explains.

Hardin has been focused on the riddle of metabolism for more than 25 years. He entered the field because it represented a happy medium between the detail of biochemistry and the applicability of ecology, halfway between his philosopher father and physician mother.

And when it comes to nutrition, Hardin believes the middle is the healthiest place to be. “Don’t have surges in your blood glucose or surges in your blood fats; [have] small meals, varied meals, mixtures of protein, fat and carbs. It’s a very moderate diet,” he advises. “Essentially, your grandmother was right. Eat your vegetables, don’t eat too much junk, go outside and play.”

Yet, he says, our country is presently plagued by extremes. The obesity rate in the U.S. is high, even dangerous. And to combat it, people have taken dieting to the extreme. But healthy weight can’t be achieved with a simple solution. It’s not about “no carbs” or “no fat.” It’s just about eating less of both.

This is a relief for someone who loves pizza. The sugars in pizza crust will raise blood sugar and keep it high for a long time – a surge that Hardin suggests we avoid. But, fortunately, he doesn’t recommend eliminating pizza from our diets completely. “It’s a food I utterly adore; life without pizza isn’t worth living,” Hardin remarks. “Just don’t have pizza all the time; that’s the point.”

Outlining the “right” kind of eating is a contentious conversation, Hardin observes, and the controversy is valid. The Nutritional Science department recently brought in New York Times columnist Gary Taubes to discuss whether fat is accurately portrayed as evil, and some MU nutritional scientists disagree with Taubes’ rationale. As Hardin observes, “it shows that there’s an awful lot we still need to learn before we can move forward and address this obesity epidemic.”

And that is exactly what Hardin is trying to do with his new metabolic kitchen – or as he calls it, his “new toy.” Ideally located near the Exercise Physiology Program and adjacent to the Child-Development Laboratory, the kitchen will be built in what is now storage space beneath the Nutritional Sciences building. Collaboration suits Hardin, whose department sits at the intersection of the College of Agriculture, the School of Human Environmental Sciences, and the School of Medicine.

When he took over the position one year ago, Hardin decided that combating the obesity epidemic would be his pet project. He says he noticed that the nutritional landscape of the U.S. has fundamentally changed since the 1970s, and that this is the main cause of the obesity problem. “When you have an entire landscape changing, trying to go back and address one or two things will never be sufficient,” he explains. “You have got to go back and change the landscape of our lifestyle.” As a nation, we eat in restaurants where we cannot control the nutrients in our food, and kids don’t play outside as much on hot days because we have indoor air-conditioning.

Moreoever, we have encouraged our farmers to produce inexpensive food. “We have a lot of high-calorie, nutrient-poor food right now,” Hardin cautions, “and people have grown addicted to cheap food.” To combat this health crisis, we need to refocus and produce healthy food.

So Hardin plans to study the way we eat by experimenting in his metabolic kitchen, whose construction will occur in three phases. The first, a teaching facility, is already underway. Here he plans to study child food-choice behavior, while dietetics students teach parents and children how to select and cook healthy meals. The teaching kitchen will be state-of-the-art, with the capabilities to film cooking demonstrations and record the way kids choose food.

Then, when funds become available, a proper metabolic kitchen will be built. That will allow Hardin and others to control particular components of food and figure out the healthiest possible ingredients. The metabolic kitchen will also include a packaging area so that people can take meals home.

The final phase of the kitchen is the analytical laboratories, which Hardin will use to examine the short-term and long-term effects of his study on human subjects. Fortunately, all of the resources he needs are on campus, and the infrastructure for outreach is in place – since two-thirds of Missouri school children already receive nutrition and fitness information from MU’s nutritional sciences extension program. Even the architectural designs are going to be done in-house by MU’s Architectural Studies program.

To say Hardin is excited about these endeavors would be an understatement. He gave us a quick tour of the facilities, and although the space is still full of rusty rat cages and outdated camera equipment, we could readily imagine the industrial-quality kitchen based on Hardin’s enthusiastic descriptions. It will take years of work and millions of dollars, but Hardin is fired-up and ready for the challenge.