In Profile: David Jenkins

Professor David JenkinsIn 2015, The Globe and Mail referred to Professor David Jenkins as a scientist who “has had a profound influence on how and what we eat.” Jenkins, the Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism, has introduced nutrition concepts such as the glycemic index and the portfolio diet — both recognized around the world as well — and helped shape many national and international dietary guidelines.

Much of Jenkins’ research has focused on the potential of diet to prevent and treat chronic conditions including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. But his team also investigates the effects of various diets over the life cycle to benefit people of all ages.

Jenkins’ work around diabetes prevention has a particular relevance to children’s health today. “More children are now diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, which was previously only associated with adults and mainly caused by physical inactivity and excess calorie intake. That’s a major problem,” says Jenkins, who is also a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “We're exploring the impacts of different types of foods and diets, such as nuts, beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils and legumes, all of which are healthy for children and are part of the low glycemic index diet, which helps to prevent disease.”

As well, Jenkins’ team explores ways to lower cholesterol levels using diet instead of drugs. “We’ve developed what we call a dietary portfolio, which is good at lowering cholesterol using foods you can buy at a supermarket,” he says. “That is very important for children with higher cholesterol levels because we want to limit their reliance on drugs.”

At the core of Jenkins’ work lies the philosophy of ‘healthy humans, healthy planet.’ The motivation for his research is saving human lives through encouraging healthy eating, but also preventing human activities that result in species loss and harm the environment. To those ends, he promotes sustainable practices such as eating a wide variety of plant foods and locally grown produce.

Jenkins is also interested in setting up a chronic disease and clinical trials network at U of T. “Clinical trials will be very important for testing the effects of diets on chronic disease throughout the life cycle, with obvious relevance to the Lawson Centre,” he says. “It would mean Lawson researchers will have a clinical trials apparatus to test the concepts and theories they are generating in the area of child health.”