The “Ideal Plate Game” is one of Ann Skulas-Ray’s favorite classroom activities. In it, her students imagine a plate of food that exemplifies their idea of a perfect diet. “What’s on the plate?” she asks them. And surprisingly often, the students are stumped.
“They have a really hard time with it,” she laughed. “They’d much rather tell me what’s not on the plate than what is.”
Skulas-Ray, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness (SNSW), wants to make it easier to answer the question of what to put on the plate by shifting the way we think about food. Instead of labeling some foods as “good” and some as “bad,” she wants to reframe food as a way to support the body’s systems and improve their function. Ultimately, she wants to figure out how we can use food to enhance quality of life.
“Because I’m a nutrition researcher, people often ask me, ‘Oh, is this food good for me?’” Skulas-Ray said. “I’ve started asking them what they really mean when they say ‘good for me.’ And one of the most common answers I get is, ‘It makes me feel good, it helps me do what I want to do.’ I think that’s fascinating, because a lot of the research tends to focus on treating and preventing disease, not necessarily on promoting wellness.”
Skulas-Ray began experimenting with her diet as a teenager living with ulcerative colitis, a chronic illness that causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract. “I had to sort of wade into that territory of figuring out what I could do with nutrition and lifestyle interventions on my own,” she recalled. “I wanted options. I wanted evidence-based information I could employ to improve my health proactively.”
Her personal experiences helped inspire Skulas-Ray’s research program. In the past, she’s investigated the use of dietary supplements to reduce chronic inflammation. Today, she’s excited to expand her research to include the impact of nutrition on promoting general wellbeing through a new research study in partnership with the Pima County Cooperative Extension’s Tucson Village Farm.
In the “Easy Peasy” Study, Skulas-Ray and her team intend to determine the effects of increased consumption of fresh, locally grown vegetables on several markers of health and wellness, with the ultimate aim of discovering which dietary behaviors offer the highest potential for positive impact on health.
"It’s about empowering individuals with the knowledge to use nutrition to live better lives,” Skulas-Ray said. “My goal with nutrition is not to shame people, or to blame people living with disease. It’s to help people be the best version of themselves they can be.”