Often it’s the hot-button, trendy, social-media-friendly health topics that get the general populace buzzing about health and well-being. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, there’s a wealth of research, strategy, and passion converging in efforts to truly improve the state of health—and not just spur a new crop of popular diet books.
In the work of Dr. Kathleen Holton, a nutritional neuroscientist and Assistant Professor at American University, there is the rare collision of mainstream trendiness and highly substantive research, as she delves into an issue that affects virtually everyone: food additives.
Over the years, the popularity of various sugar substitutes has swelled and waned, over and over again. Today it is found in everything from soda and cookies to gum, breath mints, yogurts, cereals, and even bread. Many people seem to feel a sense of nutrition invincibility when using their sweetener of choice instead of sugar.
On the contrary, Dr. Holton recommends that people avoid all artificial sweeteners. Here are a few reasons why:
- Association with many negative health effects
- Potential adverse effect on ability to taste natural sweetness in food
- Artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, which cultivates increased desire for sweetness in foods
“My goal is to help people eat better, which includes eating more fruits and vegetables,” Holton said. “I want people to be able to taste the natural sugar in these foods, and the best way to do that is to help them reduce their consumption of highly sweet foods.”
Research: Avoiding Food Additives Can Alleviate Neurological Symptoms
Dr. Holton’s research examines the negative effects of dietary excitotoxins on neurological symptoms, as well as the protective effects of certain micronutrients on the brain. The most common dietary excitotoxins in the US. are from food additives used as flavor enhancers, such as MSG, and the artificial sweetener aspartame.
Early in Dr. Holton’s career, she was intrigued by anecdotal reports of neurological symptoms being reduced when people stopped consuming certain food additives. Her research into the chemical composition of these food additives, and the potential biologic mechanism for how these may be able to affect health, led her to create a diet that limited the consumption of certain additives. She has tested this diet in individuals with fibromyalgia, with very promising results, and will be testing the diet as a potential treatment for ADHD in the near future.
“Studying this diet has been amazing on multiple fronts,” Dr. Holton said. “Not only have I seen dramatic improvement in neurological symptoms such as pain, memory loss, cognitive dysfunction, and mental health disorders like depression and OCD, but importantly, I have also watched subjects report a huge reduction in cravings for junk food, which may also have important implications for the obesity epidemic.”
Informing the Masses
While phrases such as “dietary excitotoxins” aren’t likely to crack the general public’s lexicon anytime soon, Dr. Holton does hope more people will recognize and respond to the health ramifications of poor dietary choices, including the fact that processed food in our country is not only a source of excess fat and sugar in the diet, but also increases our exposure to food additives. “For instance, in the US we are exposed to more than 3,000 food additives, whereas in Canada and the European Union, people are exposed to less than 500 food additives.”
As Dr. Holton’s research illustrates, there is plenty of work to be done by graduates of health programs such as those at American University. There’s a wealth of knowledge that needs to be communicated through workplaces, nonprofits, governmental agencies, schools and more, to help individuals improve their health.
In the nutrition classes that Dr. Holton teaches at AU, she sees students who are excited to learn about health and who are passionate for the work they will be doing in the future.
“I love hearing about their conversations with friends and relatives and how they are looking at what they eat in a whole new way. Nutrition education is something that can profoundly impact people’s lives.”
Interested in research like Dr. Holton’s on food additives? Learn more about a master’s degree in health promotion management from American University.