Everything you wanted to know about diet, exercise and food
“My dream was to establish myself at a centre like this,” says Nick Bellissimo, a professor in Ryerson’s School of Nutrition, as he shows me around his new lab space in the university’s state-of-the-art Centre for Urban Innovation (CUI), a research, incubation and commercialization hub that opened earlier this year at 44 Gerrard St. East. As director of Nutrition Discovery Labs, Bellissimo and his colleagues and students study nutrition and food consumption, and investigate how diet, exercise, biomarkers and environmental factors affect human health.
Bellissimo says he’s always had a particular interest in children’s health. “The question we started with was, why do kids eat what they eat?” he says. “What are the influences of diet, exercise, and environmental factors on health and well-being? And what can we do to support kids so that they grow up happy and healthy?”
In Bellissimo’s lab, you can play a video game while exercising; the effect of “screen time” on eating behaviours is a subject of intense interest. There are also “sensory booths” where researchers can measure a subject’s response to the smell, taste and texture of food. That food might come from the adjacent kitchen, where Bellissimo’s colleagues or students can design new kinds of foods, or it might be provided by an industry partner keen on tweaking its product to satisfy customers’ preferences.
The lab will soon be taking delivery of another major piece of equipment, the Dynamic Gastric Model, a machine that simulates the different parts of the human digestive system – mouth, stomach, intestines and all. The goal is to see how food breaks down in the various portions of the gastro-intestinal track, and to quantify which products of the digestion process have significant health benefits.
The lab also features an array of high-tech fitness assessment equipment, which can be used by professional and student athletes, as well as members of the public. The equipment includes the egg-shaped BodPod, which assesses body composition; a calorimeter that measures the body’s metabolic rate; and a “body composition analyzer” that uses ultrasound to give precise readouts of fat and lean tissue within the muscles.
There’s also a 3D body circumference analyzer that can tell you your waist-versus-hip circumference – a set of numbers that can be more helpful than just knowing your weight, Bellissimo says. “We’re always asking, what information can we pass on to individuals, to help them live a healthier life,” he says.
But it’s hardly a solo effort. Bellissimo’s students are also a critical part of the research effort. A team that includes MHSc students Michaela Kucab and Terence Boateng is investigating the effect of whole eggs versus its components (egg whites and egg yolks) on cognitive performance, and studying the “gut-brain connection” in evaluating food choices.
Bellissimo has been collaborating with long-time colleague Dérick Rousseau, a professor in Ryerson’s Department of Chemistry and Biology, who leads the Food and Soft Materials Research Group located in the CUI at Ryerson. In 2017 the two researchers were awarded $5.2 million in infrastructure funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to research the development of foods with health-enhancing properties and help counter Canada’s growing obesity epidemic. While Bellissimo studies eating habits, Rousseau focuses on the physical properties of food itself, with the aim of making it healthier, extending its shelf life, or simply making it taste better.
Dan Falk (@danfalk) (journalism ’92) is a science journalist based in Toronto. His books include The Science of Shakespeare and In Search of Time.