Dr. David J.A. Jenkins
By Valerie Khayat
When Dr. David Jenkins set out to become a physician, he did so thinking he would be able to solve all of the world’s health problems. But as he explains, he soon realized that medicine on its own was not enough. Something was missing.
“Doctors did not have the weapons to combat disease”, he says.
Since that epiphany many years ago, Jenkins, has devoted his career to producing these “weapons” -- research findings that have enabled doctors and dieticians to develop preventive and treatment strategies related to diet and lifestyle.
Nutrition as a means to improved health is an increasingly popular topic today but Jenkins, a British native and graduate of Oxford University, was clearly ahead of his time. It was in 1981 that he published his groundbreaking article introducing the Glycemic Index, a revolutionary tool that identifies the effects of carbohydrate foods on blood glucose. At the time, interest was growing in cholesterol-lowering drugs that were being introduced on the market. Jenkins’s findings garnered much attention as they demonstrated that similar results could be obtained naturally and without undesirable side effects, through a tailored diet of traditional foods and “sticky” fibers such as oats, barley, sweet potatoes and lentils.
From that breakthrough moment, Jenkins went on to develop what he calls the Portfolio Diet, a name which is inspired from the financial world, where investors are encouraged to build a healthy portfolio of diverse holdings. In Jenkins’s version, the blue chip stocks are plant-based foods such as nuts, barley, legumes and soy products.
Jenkins, Canada Research Chair in Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Toronto, is the winner of McGill University’s 2014 Bloomberg Manulife Prize for the Promotion of Active Health, and the first Canadian researcher to win the award since its inception in 2011.
The Glycemic Index has been a gateway to powerful dietary strategies that can effectively treat chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Jenkins’s work has not only informed nutritional guidelines worldwide, including those of the Diabetes Federation and the World Health Organization, but his findings have also infiltrated mainstream culture and have inspired popular diets like the Atkins Diet, the Zone and the South Beach Diet.
Jenkins has also partnered with Loblaw Companies, Canada’s largest chain of grocery stores, with more than 2,300 locations across the country. His research inspired them to create the Blue Menu, a line of foods featuring over 450 products with reduced fat, less sodium and more fibre.
With regards to nutrition, there certainly isn’t a lack of advice these days. Between wellness blogs, TV programs and ‘how-to’ books on what to eat and what to avoid, one can easily feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. So where is a good place to start?
Jenkins’ advice is simple: eat a more plant-based diet, substituting meat and animal products with peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, oats and barley (for protein content). Add nuts and vegetable oils, which are very low in saturated fats and cholesterol, and you have for yourself a well-balanced diet.
But what about those oh-so tasty sweets? Must we give those up completely? “We all indulge,” says Jenkins. “I mean, I like sugary things. You’re not going to be moderate and good all the time. There are going to be times when you’ll just let yourself go and that’s fine, too”, he says. The take-away here, however, is that moderation is key.
In addition to his research, Jenkins has devoted much of his career to advocating publicly for a healthy and sustainable diet, even representing the medical community on Agriculture Canada’s Science Advisory Board. He is a fervent promoter of what he describes as a “more humane way of eating” and an all-around sustainable lifestyle. “I do believe that these foods are not only, importantly, good for human health but interestingly, very good for planetary health, so we want to become more humane and reduce our carbon footprint. So I think it fits with many of the current themes that are there today,” he says.