American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Barbara Rolls, Speaker

Interview with Dr. Barbara Rolls, Speaker

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
A Conversation With Conference Speaker Dr. Barbara Rolls

The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) continues to be one of the most respected sources for nutrition-related information in the world.  One of the most important ways the organization disseminates that information is through its meetings.  Most members of ASN and of the nutrition community are very familiar with ASN's Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology (EB).  However, some members of the field may be less familiar with ASN's newest meeting: Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition, which was first held in 2011. This conference, organized by the ASN Medical Nutrition Council (MNC), was designed for health professionals with an interest in clinical nutrition.

The 2012 Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition meeting, held June 22-24 in Chicago, continued its newly established tradition of presenting multiple perspectives on some of the most talked-about topics at EB.  This month, we spoke with one of the brilliant presenters from this year's meeting, Dr. Barbara Rolls of The Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Rolls serves as a professor and the Helen A. Guthrie Chair of Nutritional Sciences, and also holds positions at Penn State as a professor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health, the Intercollege Graduate Program in Physiology, and the Integrative Biosciences Graduate Program. She is a faculty member of Penn State Hershey College of Medicine's Neural and Behavioral Sciences Program and the MD/PhD Program.  She is also the author of more than 250 scientific articles and six books, including “Thirst,” “The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan: Feel Full on Fewer Calories,” “The Volumetrics Eating Plan,” and, her most recent work, “The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet,” which was published in the spring of this year.  Dr. Rolls discussed her presentation, her overall take on the meeting, and her perspective on the importance of ASN membership.

Interviewer: Could you start by telling us a bit about your Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition presentation on the energy density of food and its impact on weight gain?

Dr. Rolls: Our session asked whether dietary energy density affects body weight. I hadn't realized how controversial this issue has the potential to be. The Dietary Guidelines Committee recently released an evidence-based report saying there was strong support for the correlation between energy-dense foods and weight gain.  However, it is always interesting to hear other perspectives, and this conference provides both speakers with an excellent opportunity to summarize their thoughts on a particular topic. My presentation covered the historical background of how we came to understand that there may be a relationship between energy density or calorie density and weight gain. I gave an overview of some of the lab-based, short-term studies that have shown that calorie density clearly affects our overall energy intake. I then went on to discuss body weight gain. There is significant clinical evidence that shows eating calorie-dense foods can be used therapeutically for children or elderly individuals who are undernourished. I also talked about some clinical trial data showing that lowering the energy density of the diet can facilitate weight loss. I did speak a bit about population data, which was mostly what my fellow speaker, Dr. Richard Mattes of Purdue University, covered. I did not go into much depth in this area because although it supports the impact of energy density on body weight, population data is not usually considered as strong for evidence-based medicine. Finally, I talked about the new Dietary Guidelines report on energy density and some overall advice for nutrition professionals on how to put this advice to use.

Interviewer: Why do you feel this is an important issue to be considered by ASN members?

Dr. Rolls: I think that the real challenge is how to make low-calorie-density food more accessible, affordable, and acceptable to both consumers and food providers. So the issue for ASN members to consider is no longer whether energy density affects weight but what we can do to make sure that the foods we are eating are lower in calorie density and more reasonable in portion size. I believe the main action leaders in the nutrition field need to take is to help patients and consumers understand the importance of energy density in their intake regulation. While providers do need to make lower-density foods more affordable and accessible, consumers need to demand these changes. I am hopeful that ASN can play a major role in trying to move consumers past “quick fixes” for weight loss and help them understand what actions they need to take to eat healthily.

Interviewer: What other presentations or discussions at the meeting did you find particularly compelling?

Dr. Rolls: I thought the meeting was absolutely excellent.  I attended the whole meeting and was extremely pleased that I did. When I saw the speaker list, I made up my mind right away to stay.  Sessions that I particularly enjoyed included presentation on the importance of glycemic load and glycemic index by Columbia University Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer and Harvard Medical School Dr. Cara Ebbeling as well as the opening session on lifestyle changes and disease prevention with Dr. Sharon Ross of the National Cancer Institute and Wake Forest School of Medicine's Dr. Stephen Kritchevsky.  I also thought Richard Black of Kraft Food's talk on front-of-package labeling was very compelling.  It is always helpful to have that industry perspective.

Interviewer: What advice do you have for members considering presenting at or attending Advances and Controversies in Clinical Nutrition in the future?

Dr. Rolls: First of all, I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to speak or attend to do it.  It is a wonderful way to consolidate your thoughts on some very important topics because it provides you with a chance to discuss those thoughts with your peers of the very highest quality.  It also helps you generate new ideas that could lead to future funding when you have to present your findings in a clear, accessible, and well-argued way that considers other perspectives on a particular topic.  Since I stayed for the whole conference, I was also able to see the other presentations from an audience perspective.  I found all of those I attended extremely helpful because they were geared for participants with a range of knowledge. I did not find any of them too difficult, even if I wasn't in the field, nor did I find any of them too simplistic.

Interviewer: How did your experience with this meeting compare to other scientific meetings, particularly Experimental Biology?

Dr. Rolls: The unique thing about this meeting is that it has taken some of the most popular, standing-room only sessions at Experimental Biology and consolidated them in one meeting. Often the best attended sessions at EB are these kinds of current debate topics and controversies. I think seeing that interest is really where the inspiration for this meeting came from, and the results have been terrific.  Sometimes it can be difficult to convince someone to do a debate or in depth discussion of a defined topic.   As a presenter, you are forced to think hard and go beyond your usual talking points.  That is what made it so special for me: the presence of opposing viewpoints really pushed me to consider all angles of my research and to come up with new ways of thinking about it.  It is challenging but really stimulating for both the presenters and the audience.  For many of these topics we assume that everyone agrees, but when we have these kinds of conversations, we realize where there are still disagreements and areas where more research needs to be done. For both clinical and research professionals in our field, that is absolutely invaluable.

Interviewer: What motivated you to become involved in the nutrition field? Where along that path did you decide to join ASN and why?

Dr. Rolls: As with many long careers, I came into nutrition via a rather indirect route.  I was originally trained in physiology but eventually moved on to food intake regulation and obesity.  ASN does a wonderful job of encompassing all of these areas, which is why I joined.  I actually discovered ASN later in my career, because I did my graduate and post-doctoral work at Oxford and Cambridge. I became a member after I came back from Oxford to the states, when I was an associate professor at Johns Hopkins.  I think many people find, as I did, that if you're working in a nutrition-related area, being a member of ASN is a professional credential that you need.

Interviewer: What about your ASN membership have you found most helpful in your professional career? What recommendations do you have for members looking to get more involved in the organization?

Dr. Rolls: There are so many aspects of ASN that I have found useful in my career.  Everyone in this organization is so supportive; it feels like a family, with senior investigators who take great pride in mentoring the younger investigators.  Anyone who has been involved in different professional societies knows how rare and special that feeling is.  As I mentioned, when I came to ASN it was later in my career and, although I was familiar with the nutrition community in Britain, I did not know that many people in the U.S.  ASN helped me make those essential personal and professional networking connections.

There are so many opportunities for members to get involved in ASN, through committees, submitting proposals, volunteering for Research Interest Sections, and reviewing submissions for the journals.  All of those activities within ASN will help get you noticed in the field and help to build your credentials for your career.

July 2012