From Epidemiological Research to Real-World Applications

Public health research with applications in preventative care, obesity, diabetes, chronic diseases, and children's health

The USDA reported that 1/3 of Americans get a startling 47% of their calorie intake from junk food. In an effort to improve the health of millions, researchers have begun to investigate why American diets are unhealthy. While the prevalence of unhealthy foods is a big factor, researchers have also found that many Americans have never been taught how to eat healthy. It is with the hope of teaching society to eat more nutritious foods and maintain health that Dr. Eric Rimm, of Harvard University, continues to conduct his research. Dr. Rimm is primarily concerned with nutrition and metabolic diseases. The range of such interests however are vast and have a variety of applications from epidemiological research to improving the nutrition of school lunches. His research incorporates a thoughtful application for research to make sure his fundamental research is applicable to real-world problems. Therefore, as a committed empirical scientist, Dr. Rimm also believes it is important for research to have an affect on the community at-large.

The importance of Dr. Rimm's research is two-fold. His fundamental research may lead to prevention and how to use cutting-edge tools to assess biomarkers in bacteria, blood, or DNA to identify early markers of disease to direct at-risk individuals towards modifiable diet and lifestyle choices and dietary patterns. The importance of his public health nutrition research is even more directly relevant because it helps children in schools eat better. It will also help families on food stamps gain a better understanding of nutrition and make food choices that will teach their children the benefits of a healthier lifestyle. In addition to the incredible impact of his research, Dr. Rimm's research efforts are unique in their transformational abilities because they start from computational work and expand to schools and the community. Few others in public health research have had the experience in the field of nutrition to understand the many aspects of a healthy diet and how they translate from etiologic pathways upstream to children and families in our communities.

Current research includes:

  • School Lunch Programs: Dr. Rimm's research found that children, especially more impoverished children, were getting 50-70% of their daily calories from their free school breakfast and lunch, but the quality was deplorable. Along with a hunger agency in Boston, Dr. Rimm and his team recently recreated the school meal with the help of an in-house chef to make the food taste better and to teach the school cafeteria personnel how to cut, chop, and cook without the whole meal costing more. The program worked so well in the pilot schools that Dr. Rimm was asked to ramp it up in several large school systems where most students received the USDA subsidized breakfast and lunch. Dr. Rimm's team tested several different methods to inspire kids to eat a healthier lunch over a three year period. He found their "chef-inspired" meals got the best results and helped motivate kids as well as increased their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

  • Healthier Decisions: Dr. Rimm has found that food stamps, which are used by one in seven people in the U.S.  - half of which are children - helps families become less food insecure. Unfortunately, they also lead to poor food choices because money can be used for soda, candy, and other foods with no nutritional value. Many families want to buy healthier food, but have never been given the tools to make healthier decisions. Dr. Rimm and his team are working with local and larger regional grocery store chains to better understand buying patterns of families on food stamps and also to develop better tools for the consumer in the grocery store.  

  • Predicting Heart Attacks: Dr. Rimm and his team are also measuring new genetics and circulating blood markers that help predict who will have a heart attack or stroke, but also what modifiable factors can most benefit the at-risk individuals. Dr. Rimm's online portal (healthyheartscore.org) will allow patients to predict their risk of heart attacks in the comfort of their own home.

  • Polyphenols: Dr. Rimm is studying how the effects of polyphenols from fruit affects the bacteria in our gut and how this bacteria may produce beneficial compounds that lower blood pressure, diabetes, and risk of heart attacks. In a study with over 250,000 men and women, those who had a greater intake of polyphenols from some fruits like berries, apples, oranges, and other foods like tea, red wine, and onions have a lower risk of hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes. Dr. Rimm and his team have recently initiated a six month blueberry feeding study to understand the biological mechanisms driving this benefit.

  • Good Cholesterol: Dr. Rimm and colleagues have developed a better way to measure HDL-cholesterol (good cholesterol) that excludes the portion of HDL-C that biologically is detrimental. In a second study, he and his team have identified a genetic marker that when coupled with a participant's blood glucose status, can predict a 5-10 fold increased risk of heart attack in men and women. These findings may become a leading factor in determining prevention.

Bio

Dr. Rimm is a Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and the Director of the Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and also a Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. His research group focuses on the study of diet and lifestyle characteristics in relation to cardiovascular disease. He also works on public health nutrition research to study the impact of nutrition policy in schools, on the diets of school children, and the impact of food stamp dietary habits. He has previously served on the scientific advisory committee for the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. He has published more than 450 peer reviewed publications during his 20 years on the faculty at Harvard. Dr. Rimm is an associate editor for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the American Journal of Epidemiology. He also was awarded the 2012 American Society for Nutrition General Mills Institute of Health and Nutrition Innovation Award. Dr. Rimm works with a broad team that is made up of other faculty at Harvard, Mass General Hospital, and most importantly doctoral students and postdocs who have the most to gain as they use these research methods in their training.

Dr. Rimm grew up in the midwest, where he ate a lot of red meat and was not a big fan of green vegetables. He was raised in a Jewish family; his parents were professionals who worked in Madison and Milwaukee but simultaneously farmed a 10,000 tree apple orchard as a hobby. He would eat and breathe apples throughout his teenage years, but never dreamed that after a degree from Wisconsin, he would launch his research career at Harvard in nutrition and human disease prevention. His training at Harvard and the excellent mentorship he had as a doctoral student helped him find his passion for research in nutrition and genetic interactions and in public health nutrition research; specifically, finding new methods of healthy eating to help children in schools or families on food stamps.

In his free time, Dr. Rimm applies his research to his personal choices; he enjoys road biking and exercising with his two children. In addition, he enjoys adding to his modest wine collection.

Website: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/eric-rimm/

Awards

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences National Research Service Award, 1986-1991

Harvard School of Public Health, Mentor/Teaching Award, 1996

Frederick Epstein Memorial International Lecture Award, 2012

American Society of Nutrition General Mills Institute of Health and Nutrition Innovation Award, 2012

Post-doctoral Mentor of the Year Award, Harvard School of Public Health, 2013

Circulation Best Paper Award in Population Science, 2013