Raylene Reimer, PhD, RD

Professor, Joint appointment, Faculty of Kinesiology/Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Medicine University of Calgary, Calgary, AB
Researcher of the month: 
Feb 2015

Battling obesity and type 2 diabetes

When Raylene Reimer, PhD, RD, was 11 years old, a battle with breast cancer prompted her mother to throw junk food out the window and teach her children to eat a healthy diet.

Although she ultimately lost the battle, her mother’s focus on good nutrition for good health played a major role in Reimer’s choice of career. She gravitated to the study of nutrition at the University of Alberta (Edmonton), where she pursued her plans to become a registered dietician. However, a summer NSERC studentship with a farrow of piglets pulled her in another direction. The project, under the tutelage of Dr. Michael McBurney, propelled her towards a career in nutritional research.

“Paying attention to detail and doing all types of analyses, that’s what triggered my love of research,” she admits.

In the laboratory, Reimer’s early research examined the impact of different diets and types of dietary fibre in reducing the long-term susceptibility of rat offspring to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“We were trying to discover what a mom can eat during pregnancy in terms of her overall diet that’s protective or, conversely, detrimental to the health of her offspring. We found, for example, that a high-protein diet in pregnant rats has negative consequences for the offspring. Today we continue to examine what happens to the offspring and their risk of developing obesity if mom is overweight, consumes artificial sweeteners or has to take antibiotics during pregnancy.”

The natural progression of this work was to see what could be done to undo some of the negative impacts on offspring. Reimer’s work focused on whether certain types of dietary fibre could counteract the detrimental effects on health. Her laboratory studies have found that prebiotic fibre, naturally found in small amounts in onions, garlic, bananas and wheat, conferred positive health and metabolic benefits in rats. The next step was to take those studies from laboratory to human trials.

Focusing on fibre

“We know that Canadians don’t eat enough fibre,” says Reimer. “Nobody, be it children or adults, currently meets the recommended daily intake. Dietary fibre was the one positive thing that we could look at in the diet that could make a real difference in preventing these health problems.”

The average woman needs 25 g of dietary fibre daily; the average man, 38 g. A serving of whole wheat bread contains only 3 g of fibre, so in order to reach that goal, “you’ve really got to make very good food choices,” she adds.

Her goal is to find a low-dose fibre that makes people feel fuller, lowers cholesterol, provides better blood sugar and weight control and, ultimately, improves body composition.

However, the side effects of fibre, including bloating, prohibited Reimer and her team of researchers from using the high doses that conferred health benefits in rats in clinical trials. Because common foods only contain small amounts of prebiotic fibre, eating it naturally would add too many calories to a diet and quickly outweigh any benefits. So, the team decided to use a dietary supplement.

First tested in overweight adults, the powdered, prebiotic fibre supplement produced positive health and metabolic benefits. It improved weight loss, reduced levels of hormones that increase appetite, and provided better blood glucose control in a placebo-controlled clinical trial.

“The other interesting thing about prebiotic fibre is that it’s very good at feeding the healthy bacteria in your intestine,” Reimer adds. Gut bacteria play an influential role in regulating metabolic health, and research has shown that the normal bacterial profile is disturbed in obesity.  

The next step was to study the effects of prebiotic fibre on the metabolic health and gut bacteria of overweight children. The slightly sweet-tasting prebiotic powder was dissolved in a bottle of water, which the children drank daily. The results, when published, will provide a complete metabolic report card on each child’s health and intestinal bacteria.

From bench to bedside

This research literally takes Reimer and her students from bench to bedside. Their studies span the gamut of research from the molecular to clinical level – a rewarding experience that unites basic research with potential real-world applications.

“Fifteen years ago, we only did rat studies,” Reimer recalls. “We were strictly a basic sciences laboratory.” Then, several years ago, she encouraged a motivated PhD student to coordinate their first clinical trial.

“We’ve never looked back,” she says. “We can span the whole spectrum of research.”

Today, her laboratory also conducts clinical trials for the food industry. “They want to know which new ingredients will help with weight loss or appetite control and which ones won’t,” she says. “We have a tight link that will help us to get the science out to consumers.”

Reimer’s background has prepared her for this challenge. Before obtaining her PhD, she completed a clinical internship and maintains her status as a registered dietician. She chose to complete an industry-based, postdoctoral fellowship at Swiss-based Nestlé, the world’s largest food company.

“This work gets us even closer to consumer applications,” she states, “because these companies are the ones willing to put prebiotic fibre into new products. Hopefully, that will help our research to achieve an impact on obesity and type 2 diabetes.”