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Published January 21, 2014, 07:31 PM

Heitkamp ties nutrition lab to importance of ag spending during tour

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., made her first visit Tuesday to the federally funded Human Nutrition Research Center on UND’s campus, stressing the importance of the scientific work there.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., made her first visit Tuesday to the federally funded Human Nutrition Research Center on UND’s campus, stressing the importance of the scientific work there.

Fighting obesity, like the center’s scientists are doing, could result in health care and other savings of “literally in millions, if not billions, of dollars,” said Heitkamp, a UND alumna, during a tour of the facility.

Heitkamp’s visit to the center was one of several appearances in North Dakota this week to emphasize the importance of the Farm Bill as well as other issues.

Gerald Combs, director of the center, said that after tobacco use, obesity is the highest risk factor for cancer, and that the Nutrition Research Center is focusing on finding new ways to fight cancer by fighting obesity.

That’s a big shift in focus, made about four years ago, from the center’s previous mission of digging down deep on what minerals do in the human body, Combs told Heitkamp. In fact, he said, most of the federally approved recommended daily amounts for minerals such as iodide, manganese and selenium, came from research done right here over decades since it was started in the mid-1960s, Combs said. His own research helped show that selenium, in fact, helped ward off cancer, often through such homey means as bread made from wheat grown in selenium-rich soil of western North Dakota, he said.

The center nearly was crossed out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget some years ago by the George W. Bush administration, but saved in part by lobbying by then-Sen. Byron Dorgan, Combs said.

He acknowledged a key reason for the shift in recent years toward obesity research was the added “cachet,” such work has Tuesday, compared with the more arcane subject of dietary minerals.

High costs

The health costs of obesity have been estimated at $137 billion a year, Combs said.

That struck a chord with Heitkamp, who during her eight years as North Dakota’s attorney general, as well as after in a private capacity, worked to win billions of dollars from tobacco companies to pay some of the health costs associated with tobacco use.

That’s a fight that’s largely been won, said Heitkamp, who herself survived a bout with breast cancer more than a decade ago.

She told Combs she was ready to help the research center keep, and gain, more funding for its work, because “what we have been doing is not working. If it was, we’d all be a lot thinner.”

Combs said the center receives $8.6 million a year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s appropriations, down from about $10.3 million four years ago.

Three-fourths of the money goes to the salaries of the 97 people at the center, many of them scientists and researchers and dieticians, Combs said.

Those people are running studies now to see, for example, if potatoes can be a larger part of people’s diets while they lose weight, and finding quicker ways for people to feel full when eating, Combs said, showing Heitkamp around the large building.

He said the Center also receives about $600,000 in grants each year.

Combs expects the appropriations bill passed last week in Congress will keep the center’s funding at its current level.

Heitkamp said the new, innovative research into how to “attack the obesity epidemic,” is an illustration of how important the U.S. Farm Bill is which authorizes the center’s appropriation and “is putting our money where our mouth is.”

She said she thinks a new Farm Bill will be passed through Congress and ready for President Barack Obama’s signature within two weeks or so.

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