‘My younger self could never have dreamed of this’
A translational biology, medicine, and health graduate student was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship to study the health impact of ultra-processed foods.
Zach Hutelin, a doctoral candidate in the Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health (TBMH) Graduate Program, has been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship to pursue a new line of research into the health impact of ultra-processed foods.
These foods make up the majority of the American diet and are considered contributing factors to the rise in eating choices overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide.
“Very few things are so widely prevalent and so understudied as our modern diet,” Hutelin said. “There’s a pressing need to recognize ultra-processed foods as highly refined and industrialized substances whose effects on the human body are a major public health concern.”
Hutelin is one of seven graduate students at Virginia Tech to receive the fellowship this year and the first ever in the TBMH program. The fellowship provides three years of support, including a $37,000 stipend each year and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance.
“My younger self could never have dreamed of this,” said Hutelin, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and found learning laborious throughout childhood.
Hutelin plans to engage high school and undergraduate students in his research to show that with the right tools, and enough drive, they can find success.
“Zach has the potential to be a great scientist and to make an impact in this field,” said DiFeliceantonio, assistant professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Hutelin’s mentor. “I see how much extra he does to be able to succeed. That type of tenacity is something that makes a really good scientist, because you have to just continue to go after a problem even if it’s hard and you fail over and over.”
Hutelin’s life demanded tenacity. He was in first grade and struggling to learn to read when his dyslexia was first recognized. The disorder causes letters to appear flipped or out of order, and similar looking letters are easily confused.
Outside of school, Hutelin explored a passion for mountain biking, pouring time and effort into improving despite living in Florida, a place where mountains are in short supply. Those efforts paid off with a chance to race downhill mountain bikes for Brevard College in North Carolina, where the cycling team won a Division 1 national championship his junior year.
Academically, however, Hutelin coped with reading comprehension in college. That changed when he embraced speech-to-text technology that converts anything he has to read into audio. He became a standout student with an interest in health and nutrition, going on to become the commencement speaker for his class. After graduating, he worked as a research assistant in labs at Valdosta State University and Yale University.
He met DiFeliceantonio at Yale University. When he decided to pursue graduate school, he followed her to Roanoke when she accepted a faculty position at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and entered the TBMH program as a doctoral candidate.
DiFeliceantonio’s lab focuses on the modern diet as a major contributor to poor health and death and why we make certain food choices. Current research includes multiple studies into how foods, including processed foods, interact with our body’s biology to influence food reward signaling in the brain.
Hutelin’s study brings together nutrition, physiology, and neuroscience to learn how ultra-processed foods affect the brain and modify behavior.
Part of his project will use the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s whole-room calorimeter, one of just four of its kind in the United States. It’s an airtight room that can measure a study participant’s metabolism precisely after they eat provided foods.
“What we're eating has huge consequences on our health, including ultra-processed food,” he said. “And yet we still eat so much of it. So what’s driving us?”
He believes these foods trigger a greater metabolic response because they’re packed with easily and rapidly digested calories, which signal the brain that they’re more rewarding.
For example, simple sugars contained in sweet beverages pass through your gut and enter your blood quickly, which could be leading your brain to associate that taste with quick energy and the desire for more.
DiFeliceantonio, who is also an associate director of the research institute's Center for Health Behaviors Research and assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has said that ultra-processed foods share the same addictive qualities of tobacco.
“We don’t have to smoke, but we do have to eat,” Hutelin said. “Understanding the food characteristics that drive us to make choices about what we eat is critical for our collective health.”