Does eating local foods improve your diet? Can the New River Valley provide the foods you need to maintain a healthy lifestyle? Researchers in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have recruited 20 Blacksburg residents for a diet study that may answer these questions.

In the four-week study, participants will eat a diet consisting mostly of foods produced or processed within 100 miles of Blacksburg. Some have already completed the challenge. Although individuals throughout North America have enjoyed these diets for more than a year, this is the first organized attempt in the region.

A similar diet challenge in Canada last year inspired Nick Rose, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, to bring his research-driven diet study to Blacksburg. After the study ends, focus groups will explore how participating in the 100-mile diet influences dietary decisions and attitudes toward purchasing local foods.

“What I did was sit down with each of the participants and discuss what types of foods were available in the area and coach them towards particular goals,” Rose said. “Their first and primary goal is to eat foods grown within 100 miles of Blacksburg and grains processed within 100 miles. For example, a mill in Elliston, Virginia, produces products from grains outside the Blacksburg area that participants can consume as part of the diet, since grains are not grown in the area.”

He continued, “If they can’t meet these first two goals, we ask them only to eat Virginia-grown foods. This goes along with the study’s mission to support regional farmers.”

Elena Serrano, an assistant professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise and a Virginia Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist, said the diet challenge supports a healthy diet.

“We are lucky that many foods from all the food groups are grown or produced in the area, so you have your choice of what you want to eat,” said Serrano, a 100-mile diet study participant and faculty advisor to Rose. “At the Blacksburg Farmers’ Market and in many of the stores in the area you can find locally grown foods. There’s even a dairy farmer in the area, who sells milk products.”

There are some obstacles to the diet, however. Serrano said beans, grains, and oils are the local agricultural industry’s main deficits. Rose added caffeinated beverages, such as coffee and tea, to the list of deficits, saying that he gave research participants leeway with certain products they would not likely find at a farmers’ market or the organic and local foods section of a grocery store.

Some participants began the study in August, while others started at the beginning of September. This staggered approach gave participants a chance to juggle their month-long commitment around busy schedules, Rose said. He discovered New River Valley residents have considerable interest in alternative diets when he received more than 40 phone calls in response to a newspaper advertisement about the study.

By early October, Rose will begin analyzing food records and fitness information about the participants for possible publications in research journals. He said he hopes focus groups conducted after the pilot study will help spark a larger awareness campaign about the local agricultural industry and how it might impact the New River Valley’s or any other locality’s economy.

In the spring of 2005, two writers from Vancouver, British Columbia, started a 100-mile diet that caught the international media’s eye. According to the writers’ website, each ingredient in a typical North American diet travels an average of 1,500 miles before reaching the dinner table.

Nationally ranked among the top research institutions of its kind, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences focuses on the science and business of living systems through learning, discovery, and engagement. The college’s comprehensive curriculum gives more than 1,600 students in a dozen academic departments a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. Students learn from the world’s leading agricultural scientists, who bring the latest science and technology into the classroom. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.

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