You’d expect a researcher focused on the links between diet and cancer to be a bit fanatical about food choices, poring over fat grams and isothiocyanate levels in every morsel consumed. But Dr. Johanna Lampe understood early on that food, at its core, is sustenance.
She spent her childhood in distant lands and recalls her mother’s prompting: “Eat up! You never know where your next meal’s coming from.”
Exposure to other cultures showed her there are many different ways to form a diet that’s nutritious and healthful.
Dr. Johanna Lampe
Eating is one of the more complex of human behaviors. We make a myriad of choices—or have little choice—based on values, availability, income, mood, taste, hunger and such. Those variables make Lampe’s job of trying to understand the effects of diet, especially plant foods, on cancer risk all the more complicated.
Lampe has carved a career in illuminating the physiological and biochemical underpinnings of dietary observations seen in population or animal studies. For instance, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts have been associated with a lower risk of lung, colorectal, breast, prostate and pancreas cancers.
Lampe and her team seek to understand the mechanism at work. Researchers know those crunchy veggies improve the body’s capacity to rid itself of cancer-causing substances, but Lampe wants to better comprehend how our enzymes do this. She also looks at differences in genetics and gut bacteria, both of which impact the way our bodies utilize what we consume.
When Lampe came to the Hutchinson Center in 1994, she helped launch the one-of-a-kind Human Nutrition Lab, a division of the Prevention Center.
Her controlled feeding studies leave less to chance or hazy memory. Volunteers eat prescribed foods—say, a soy- or vegetable-heavy or low fiber diet, depending on what’s being studied—while having blood and urine samples taken.
Such efforts allow researchers to evaluate specific aspects of diet or test key foods not normally eaten in sufficient amounts. And by supplying food, rather than relying on self-reports, such studies help to eliminate discrepancies between what we do and what we say we do, so we can’t overinflate how much spinach we munched and forget about the candy we polished off.
Lampe finds the effort both challenging and satisfying. “The human diet is a complex environmental exposure. We eat mixtures of foods and we prepare foods different ways,” she said.
“Research offers the thrill of exploration and the excitement of working to answer questions,” Lampe said. “At the same time, nutrition research can lead directly to recommendations for diet and health, so we can learn from it and lower our cancer risk.”