Rebecca Williams - A healthy view of nutrition
A healthy view of nutrition
Dr Rebecca Williams is exploring how biomarkers may predict dietary intake and influence health outcomes.
Studying Open Foundation at the University of Newcastle put Rebecca on the path to nutrition research. “I’d always had an interest in nutrition,” Rebecca says. “I left school and started working in hospitality for a few years before I decided ‘I wanted a new challenge’ and nutrition seemed like the obvious step.”
After re-immersing herself in study with Open Foundation, Rebecca quickly set her focus on a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics followed by a PhD in Human Physiology. In her PhD thesis Rebecca explored sex differences in obesity and responses to obesity treatment under the supervision of Professor Robin Callister, Professor Clare Collins and Professor Lisa Wood.
Working in the highly acclaimed Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition at UON, Rebecca is continually fuelled by the passionate nutrition researchers that surround her. “While everyone has different interests, we all have the same goal in mind – to improve health through good nutrition and physical activity.”
With professional memberships of the Dietitians Association of Australia, the Nutrition Society of Australia and Sports Dietitians Australia, Rebecca aims to build a track record and research career within the area of nutrition interventions for improving health outcomes.
Rebecca has a personal passion for sports nutrition, which she fuels through her work in private practice, interspersed with a range of research projects at UON. While it was seeing how food and nutrients can improve sports performance that first captured Rebecca’s research focus – she’s now honing in on a similar research focus – how can food and nutrients prevent or even improve health conditions.
“I’m very interested in the nutritional biochemistry side of things -- what happens once food is in your body – that is the main thing that drives me.”
Nutritional biomarkers are objective measurements that can indicate nutritional status or measure specific food intake in your urine or blood. Biomarkers are superior to self-reporting – which can be challenging and subjective.
“I love the objective side of this analysis,” Rebecca says. “I looked at biomarkers in my PhD and I’m currently supervising a PhD student who’s looking at urinary metabolites. So it’s a continuing theme to my work.”
Ketogenic diet and brain cancer
Rebecca is keen to explore the notion of nutrition as an essential tenet of optimal health. “There’s been more research done on the impact of diet in the prevention of cancer, but not so much on whether food and nutrients can act as a treatment to improve cancer outcomes,” Rebecca explains. Early evidence is positive “So it’s an exciting field – but we have to be patient as nutrition is only just emerging as a potential option in the treatment of cancer.”
An important area that Rebecca is now researching is ketogenic dietary interventions for brain cancer. “This is quite a shift from anything the group’s done in the past, but preliminary evidence shows that it’s a field that needs to move forward. We feel that it’s a priority area at the moment.”
Deep into seeking funding and grant opportunities for this research, Rebecca feels it’s an area of great potential. “It has been discovered that cancer cells prefer glucose to grow, so theoretically, if you remove these from the diet you remove the cancer cell’s fuel so they cannot continue to grow and spread. If a ketogenic diet is implemented along with chemotherapy or radiotherapy it may enhance the effect of standard cancer treatment.”
Current research has explored the role of ketogenic diet therapy in the treatment of brain cancer but mostly in animals. However, there are a number of international trials in humans underway “so we expect to see some more evidence in this area in the near future.”
The main problem with this intervention is that a ketogenic diet is very strict and difficult to follow, which is why there needs to be strict prescription and intervention with professional guidance. “Research looking at the acceptability and tolerability of ketogenic diet therapy in cancer patients will also be really important.” Brain cancer outcomes are still very poor, with only a 20% survival rate after five years, so the need to work on effective treatments is a priority.
Challenges of nutrition information
There’s consensus amongst nutrition researchers that there’s a lot of misinformation about diet and nutrition – and it’s spreading. “People are just bombarded with so much online information that they’re more confused than anything.”
In 2017 Rebecca worked on UON’s online MOOC The Science of Weight Loss. This six week online course was a massive success – with close to 30 000 enrolments world-wide. “This showed us that it was a topic that people really wanted to learn about,” Rebecca says. “Many people lacked the basic knowledge that we take for granted. “That’s where our MOOC was so useful, providing simple advice that’s easy for people to incorporate into their lives.” It’s been a really positive experience with people emailing us about their great weight-losses during the period.”
With so many areas of nutritional research to attract a researcher’s attention, Rebecca admits that maintaining focus on one particular area in such an interesting field is a challenge. “But luckily we have more and more students coming through so we can share our research ideas with them and we still get to have input into different nutrition research areas.”
Working in her group at UON continues to drive Rebecca’s focus. “From the very top of the PRC you can see how enthusiastic and inspiring our leaders are and that flows down to every researcher. Everyone has such good ideas and is keen to help each other – it’s a supportive and exciting group to work in, that’s for sure.”
Long-term, Rebecca has a firm aim. “Being in the nutrition field you want to feel you’ve made a difference. I just want people to appreciate and understand how valuable nutrition is.”