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Interview: Gabrielle Fundaro PhD, CISSN

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Gabrielle Fundaro graduated with a BS in Exercise, Sport, and Health Education in 2009. In 2014, she earned a PhD in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech where she studied the role of probiotics on skeletal muscle metabolism. That year, she was hired as an Assistant Professor of Exercise Science at Georgia Gwinnett College where she teaches sport nutrition and anatomy and physiology, advises the GGC Lifting Club and Kappa Omicron Nu honors society, and mentors undergraduate students researching L-citrulline supplementation. She earned her CISSN through the International Society of Sports Nutrition and began as a nutrition coach with Renaissance Periodization in the spring of 2017.

In April 2015, Dr. Fundaro competed in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition after roughly six months of training, and in October 2015, she won first place in her first bodybuilding competition in the Open Class A of the women’s physique division at the Lee Haney Games. Last July, she placed 5th in the Team Rohr 5 Bar Showdown, and she recently won Best Female Lifter at the Team Lis Smash Atlanta Winter Smash. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, camping, lifting weights, visiting museums, volunteering, and spending time with her dogs and cats.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to studying nutrition in the first place and how your views on various subjects have changed throughout the years?

I actually became interested in nutrition by way of my interest in skeletal muscle. I found the mechanics of muscle contraction fascinating, so I pursued my doctoral studies in a skeletal muscle physiology laboratory. I ended up studying the role of the gut microbiome and diet on skeletal muscle metabolism, and my most common graduate teaching assistanceship courses was a metabolic biochemistry course. I was drawn to the intricate perplexities of human metabolism, so sport nutrition was a natural fit.

I used to be extremely skeptical about supplements, but over the years I’ve grown more receptive to their potential ergogenic benefits. I’ve always done my best to teach evidence-based content and avoid dogmatic approaches, so my views represent the current research. As I gain more experience with coaching, I’ve been able to apply the “textbook” knowledge with a more practical and flexible client-specific approach.

Q. You’ve conducted research where you studied the effects of probiotic supplementation on the metabolism of mice being fed a high-fat diet. Could you tell us more about those results? Do you think probiotic supplementation could be beneficial for humans that go on high-fat diets?

The majority of my research was done in a rodent model, so the results can’t necessarily be extrapolated directly to humans, but we did find some improvement in the maintenance of insulin sensitivity. However, the high-fat diet rodents didn’t become as obese as we had hoped, perhaps due to the daily handling to dose them with probiotics. Subsequent human research illustrated that a high-dose, multi-strain probiotic prevented some fat gain in humans fed a high-fat, hypercaloric diet, but those humans didn’t experience any metabolic dysregulation that usually accompanies this type of feeding. Basically, we couldn’t examine the protective effects of probiotics because these diets didn’t result in the deleterious effects seen in previous studies.

The results of probiotic interventions are largely strain-specific, and animal studies come with some significant limitations, including proper dosing and the unknown effects of introducing human-associated bacterial strains into a rodent-specific microbiome. Given the difference in the size and anatomy of the rodent gut versus a human gut, it’s difficult to provide a human-equivalent dose. Even in humans, given the heterogeneity of microbial colonization from one person to the next, results are extremely variable. There are very few human studies that have used probiotic interventions in high-fat feeding. In the end, there’s no way to cheat the laws of thermodynamics or energy balance, so I think it’s prudent to say that no amount of supplementation will protect against a hypercaloric diet regardless of macronutrient composition.

Q. For the average person who’s looking to improve the health of their microbiome, what can they do? Do you think taking probiotic supplements or prebiotic supplements could offer any benefits in that area? What about incorporating specific types of foods?

While studies have shown that certain strains are effective, supplement consumers should keep in mind that they are colonized with trillions of bacteria, so taking a pill with one million of one strain of bacteria is like using an eye dropper to add water to the ocean. The most effective supplements are multi-strain with multiple billions of bacteria (or CFU, which stands for colony-forming units). Also, what they find on the shelf may not actually contain the numbers of bacteria stated on the label. A diet and exercise approach would be much more cost-effective and prudent. Fiber, fermented foods like kimchi or yogurt, and plant polyphenols all appear to improve gut health and morphology overall. Aerobic exercise also influences the microbiome, and vice versa. That being said, the supplement we used-VSL#3-has been shown to effectively reduce symptoms of a variety of inflammatory bowel diseases. So, supplementation has merit, but not necessarily for preventing fat gain.

Q. Do you think nutritional interventions to treat obesity and diabetes are effective? What do you think are some of the most common difficulties that someone would run into when going on such an intervention?

The best approach is prevention through proper energy balance of course, but when it comes to the treatment of obesity, the most effective intervention is behavior management. The greatest difficulty for any individual attempting to lose weight is the modification of behavior that will lead to reduced caloric intake and increased energy expenditure. Weight loss alone can reverse type II diabetes, but losing a sufficient amount of weight and keeping it off is incredible challenging. Weight management is a complex issue that goes beyond calories in versus calories out. Yes, that is the only way to lose weight, but people overeat for a variety of reasons, and there are metabolic adaptations that occur which reduce metabolic rate relative to body mass. A person who has dieted down to 130 lbs will have a lower metabolic rate than a person who has maintained a body weight of 130 lbs, and the dieter will probably also struggle with the behaviors that caused them to gain weight. There is evidence that the microbiome plays a significant role in eating behaviors, weight gain, and the ability to derive energy from the diet. Some strains can ferment fiber to short chain fatty acids, thereby increasing the energy availability of the fiber. Others are associated with metabolic dysregulation that leads to reduced fat oxidation and insulin resistance. In my opinion, the best diet is one that an individual finds sustainable. Epidemiological studies and RCTs both illustrate clear benefits to diets that are high in vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy, and fatty fish when it comes to body composition and cardiovascular disease risk. That being said, even nutritious foods can contribute to obesity if energy intake isn’t controlled, so that is really the most important aspect in weight loss.

Q. Teaching biology and nutrition isn’t particularly easy, since they’re complex subjects and with new research, a consensus on a particular topic will often change. As a professor, what would you say is the most effective way to explain concepts in such a field so that they will stick with those who have a desire to learn?

While the explanations are important, it’s equally important to design a course properly for maximum success. I require students to come to class prepared, having already read the material and assessed their current understanding in some way. In class, I start with a comprehension check to determine the areas they find confusing, and then focus on explaining those. Allegories go a long way in helping students grasp challenging concepts. For example, I compare different types of molecular bonds to the different ways people date, and relate abstract concepts to familiar things, like water molecules and magnets or batteries. A battery with a positive and negative end sounds much more accessible than a nonpolar covalent bond. Sometimes I anthropomorphize hormones and make jokes (quite off-color at times) to help students remember things. The most important aspect is student buy-in; they have to find the information relevant and important to commit to learning it. So I make an effort to apply these concepts in real-world situations. Working as a coach has helped immensely, because I can use examples as case studies to illustrate the importance of knowing about things like gastric emptying time or the role of essential fatty acids to benefit real people.

Q. How do you stay healthy? What’s your diet currently look like and has it changed at all in the past few years? Are you fond of exercising, if so, what’s your routine currently look like?

I actually was something of a couch potato until I started college. Radford University had an indoor climbing wall, and I was determined to overcome my fear of heights by climbing it. That evolved into exercising to lose weight and gain strength so I could improve my climbing skills. I ended up meeting a student who was an avid gym-goer, and we quickly became best friends. I started lifting, hiking, and playing tennis along with lifting. I realized that I loved living an active lifestyle and enjoyed my biology classes more than my music classes. So, I switched my major from music therapy to exercise science, and now I’ve been lifting for over a decade!I have dabbled in a variety of sports from trail running to Brazilian jiu jitsu, and I’m currently exploring powerlifting. I’m also an avid hiker and try to get a least a few miles on nearby trails every couple of weeks. I spent nearly a decade in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and really miss the ability to hop right on the Appalachian Trail!

I’ve also dabbled in a variety of diets, having experimented with intermittent fasting and keto back in the early 2000’s. For years now, I’ve eaten to support my performance in the gym. I match carbohydrate intake to my training volume, eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, and fill in the rest with fats according to my energy needs. I eat plants with every meal and make a point to include chia seeds and flax in my diet since they’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids. I was following the Renaissance Periodization diet before I even knew it existed, so coaching was a breeze. They’re completely evidence-based and highly adaptable to personal preference, as well. I mentioned that I am more amenable to supplements these days, and I do make my own pre-workout, which consists of creatine monohydrate, L-citrulline, tart-cherry extract, beetroot powder, caffeine, and sometimes beta alanine if I’m working on some sprints or really high-volume training. Some of the ingredients have a great deal of evidence behind them, and others are showing promise, but I enjoy experimenting with my n=1.

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See other articles in Issue #40 (February 2018) of Study Deep Dives.

Other Articles in Issue #40 (February 2018)