DURHAM, N.H. — New research at the University of New Hampshire will focus on finding out more about the gut health of New Hampshire’s hispanic community and particularly those at risk of food insecurity.
It’s a growing population in New Hampshire but has too often been underrepresented in public health research, according to researcher and UNH professor Maria Carlota Dao, who is leading the study.
“We need to better understand what this growing population’s needs are: what their health needs and issues are to better support them,” she said.
“We have this higher risk of developing nutritional deficiencies, chronic disease, and so on,” said Dao, who is originally from Venezuela. She wants to apply the information she gathers to programs that can improve health outcomes for vulnerable populations.
New Hampshire’s Hispanic population has grown quickly in the last decade, increasing by 62 percent between 2010 and 2020. As of 2022, Hispanic communities make up 4.6 percent of the state’s population, the state’s largest minority group, according to the census. Dao said it’s important for research to serve this group — especially given disparities in health outcomes.
Diabetes affects Hispanic or Latino people more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US adults have a 40 percent chance of developing Type 2 diabetes, while Hispanic or Latino adults have more than a 50 percent chance of developing the disease and it’s likely to occur at a younger age.
But Dao said, there’s a gap in the scientific knowledge when it comes to the gut health of this population.
“We don’t really know anything about microbiomes and these individuals,” she said.
The gut microbiome is a collection of microbes in the body that have important, health-sustaining functions, like helping extract nutrients from food, preventing the development of allergies, and fighting off harmful microbes. It’s an evolving and relatively new area of research, but it could have important implications for health outcomes.
The gut microbiome of people from different places and cultures looks very different, which is why Dao said it’s important to study a specific population. For instance, studies of immigrant populations have found that their microbiome differs from that of their home country.
Factors including diet, lifestyle, and exposure to different microbes based on environment can contribute to these differences, according to Dao. She said chronic stress experienced by many immigrants could also play a role in altering the microbiome.
And, she said, as the microbiome gets less healthy, people are more likely to experience other problems: like weight gain or the risk of chronic conditions.
Evidence shows that eating more fiber can help microbiome health. But most people in the US don’t get enough fiber from foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, surveys have found.
Through surveys of her own, Dao found that’s also true of Hispanic communities in New Hampshire. She has a publication forthcoming on those findings.
“It’s not just about choice,” she said, about families getting fiber-rich food.
Her upcoming study will address households that are eligible for food assistance, where some may struggle to get enough food or the kinds of food they want. It will ask participants about their food environment and the kinds of food they have access to, with a focus on store density through a collaboration with the Carsey School of Public Policy that has created maps locating food retailers throughout the state.
Originally published in 2019, the mapping project found that the rural North Country has the highest share of low-income residents, in addition to clusters around Plymouth, Claremont, Franklin, Rochester, and parts of Manchester and Keene. And there are big swaths of the state where residents don’t have a grocery store. Food from farms is also unevenly distributed, the project found, with more retailers in more populated parts of the state.
Dao said researchers at the Carsey school will be updating those maps as a part of their joint research efforts.
She hopes establishing baseline information will set the stage for further research as well as policy recommendations and programs that will benefit the Hispanic community in New Hampshire.
For Dao, there is a personal impetus behind her research.
“I had always wanted to do research that was meaningful for Hispanic populations in the US,” she said.
She immigrated to the US in the middle of college, during a time of instability in Venezuela. She said many parents who had the opportunity to send their children to study abroad did so.
After Dao graduated from Boston University with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, she went on to pursue a doctoral degree. She then worked on a postdoctoral fellowship in France for three years before returning to the US.
In 2020 she started her lab at UNH. Now, she said, she’s also involved in recruitment efforts she hopes will help diversify academia.
“I am as interested in increasing the diversity of Hispanic backgrounds — and just more representation — in academia and research,” she said.