18 November 2021

Philanthropy Support of Precision Nutrition Research and its Impact on COVID-19

Research Insights with Mary McCarthy, BSN, MN, PhD, CNSC, FAAN, FASPEN

Nutrition plays an integral role in human development and in the prevention and treatment of disease. However, there’s no such thing as a perfect, one-size-fits-all diet. Precision nutrition also referred to as personalized nutrition, is an approach to developing more targeted and effective diet interventions based on a person’s unique characteristics like DNA, race, gender, health history, and lifestyle habits.

Mary McCarthy, BSN, MN, PhD, CNSC, FAAN, FASPEN is a senior nurse scientist at Madigan Army Medical Center who is focused on the vital role that nutrition plays in the overall health of service members. Dr. McCarthy’s work has begun to advance the precision nutrition agenda in the military setting where clinicians can soon use genomic risk data to guide diet and lifestyle counseling to support personal and military readiness.

“One of my favorite comments from my research subjects was—’Every Soldier entering the Army should go through a program like this’ – referring to what we offered for gene-based counseling,” said Dr. McCarthy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made soldiers more aware of the importance of a healthy immune system. In 2021, Geneva’s philanthropy program supported Dr. McCarthy’s expanded research to include the impact of nutrition and COVID-19.

Dr. McCarthy has partnered with Geneva since 1996 and was the recipient of the first TriService Nursing Program award for Geneva. In 2018, she received Geneva’s Researcher of the Year award.  Her experience as a clinical nurse, a research nurse, and a nurse scientist, has led to the implementation of impactful and translational nursing research efforts around the topics of vitamin D supplementation and Warfighter nutritional resilience.

A Shifting Paradigm in the Military

Over the past decade, the Military Health System has changed its paradigm to focus on health promotion and disease prevention.

In May 2020, NIH released the agency’s first-ever 10-year strategic plan for nutrition science, acknowledging the importance of diet in chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Researchers and scientists have known for decades about the link between diet and chronic disease to some extent, but not as much as we know today.

“The criticism is that nutrition research methods overall have been flawed, data collection tools have been cumbersome, and, in my opinion, we have been fighting the fast-food industry/restaurant industry/the misinformation on the internet/lack of healthful, affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. McCarthy. “Health literacy is low for evidence-based nutrition and the link to chronic disease.”

Integrating advancements in digital health have been successful in promoting behavior change (diet, physical activity, sleep, etc.). Dr. McCarthy stated that “research has shown this in long-term studies and in community populations that are not as mobile as the military. However, due to constraints working with the active-duty military, short-term interventions are more common and less sustainable.”

Studying the Effects of Vitamin D

U.S. service members are at risk for musculoskeletal injuries and metabolic dysfunction that impact physical performance and military readiness. The link with having low vitamin D is unclear.

“For the past eight years I have studied vitamin D in military populations, it mirrors the national rates showing about 60% of the population is insufficient and/or deficient in vitamin D, measured in the blood,” said Dr. McCarthy. “I use many dietary intake tools that focus on vitamin D and intake in general from salmon, mackerel, mushrooms, eggs, milk, bread/grains, and orange juice is very low. Many people in the Pacific Northwest will take a supplement, but not consistently and not a high enough dose.”

With support from Geneva, Dr. McCarthy is currently conducting intervention research with service member populations at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Joint Base San Antonio focusing on health promotion, nutrition, and genomics related to mitigating risk for metabolic syndrome and vitamin D deficiency. This research promotes the overall wellness, optimized performance, and readiness of service members, addressing critical gaps in the understanding of links between key nutrients (vitamins A, C, D, E, B6 & B12, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, and fiber), harmful dietary substrates (sugar, saturated fat), and the impact on disease risk.

COVID-19 and Nutrition

The rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Dr. McCarthy and others to discover research gaps as it relates to clinical nutrition research and COVID-19.

Under award number HU00011820040 from the TriService Nursing Research Program, McCarthy’s award was extended through September 2022 and expanded to include the impact of vitamin D on COVID-19.

Some research has suggested higher vitamin D levels may protect against COVID-19. Dr. McCarthy is looking at dietary intake (how much, how often) of vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber and examining any association with the subjects’ diagnosis of COVID-19. In addition, known demographic variables such as age, race, underlying health conditions, and body mass index, will be considered as mediating or moderating variables for COVID-19 diagnosis.

Advancing the science of precision nutrition is needed to focus on the role of nutrition across the life span and address emerging links between diet, physical activity, environment, and disease prevention through multifaceted interventions, including genomic technologies, that go far beyond choosing nutritious foods.

Geneva is proud to collaborate with Dr. McCarthy to advance military medicine.