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E3 Nutrition Lab Links Child Nutrition, Economics and Evolution

A transdisciplinary laboratory at the Brown School is undertaking research across the world to address “hidden hunger”— poverty-related nutritional deficiencies in mothers and young children.

The founder and director of the E3 Nutrition Lab is Lora Iannotti, associate professor and associate dean for public health. The three “E”s represent the lab’s principles for nutrition interventions: environmentally sustainable, economically affordable, and evolutionarily appropriate.

“Our group comprises faculty, staff, and students from across campus and even across the globe working together to prevent malnutrition from different disciplinary perspectives,” Iannotti said. The lab includes faculty from the Washington University schools of anthropology, engineering, and medicine, as well as doctoral and master’s students in both public health and social work.

“We involve these disciplines to better understand and work to solve biological and societal determinants of nutrition and health,” she said.

A good example of the transdisciplinary focus is the lab’s main current project, a three-year nutrition intervention in Ecuador funded by the Children’s Discovery Institute, a collaboration between the Brown School, the Washington University School of Medicine, and Universidad San Franscisco de Quito in Ecuador. The teams include faculty from pediatric radiology, neurology, engineering, and the metabolomics facility at the School of Medicine.

Researchers will be studying fetal growth and brain development during pregnancy. During the intervention, 100 pregnant women will be given a diet based on the evolutionary past as well as those identified to be environmentally sustainable and affordable in Ecuador (e.g., fish, eggs, potatoes, berries and nuts). Importantly, the women will also be encouraged to avoid ultra-processed food like cookies, crackers or soda. Researchers will measure brain development of the fetus during pregnancy, along with nutrient biomarkers from the mothers’ blood samples. At birth, the newborns will be measured and weighed and ultrasound images will be taken of different brain regions. The results will be compared to another 100 women in the control group.

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