News & Features

Naiman Khan

A Few Minutes With Naiman Khan

Kinesiology and Community Health assistant professor Naiman Khan speaks with AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara about his research on the impact of diet on cognitive health.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: This is Vince Lara in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today, I spend a few minutes with Naiman Khan, an assistant professor in the Kinesiology and Community Health Department, to talk about his research in the disciplines of dietetics, body composition, and cognitive neuroscience.

NAIMAN KHAN: First of all, thank you for having me. It's a real pleasure to speak with you today. When I actually started doing, starting my training, I was interested in practicing first. So I was interested in becoming a registered dietitian and working in the field-- so focusing on clinical nutrition.

And all the way through my master's degree, that was the plan. So I did my master's in nutrition. And then, I did a dietetic internship, which is the clinical training. And during that time, I realized that I really enjoyed the research on campus. And after I received my dietetic credential, I returned to do my doctorate-- and then, focused on research.

And but that-- you know, my training in dietetics was still very useful in sort of shaping the questions and my approach for my research agenda. So it's still very beneficial. But that was a point at which I decided to pursue research.

And, of course, there are different ways to do research and different types of institutions. I really enjoyed teaching. And especially during my graduate training-- I was working with different schools and teachers across the state of Illinois. And I really enjoyed the education component of my research. So I wanted to work at a place like the University of Illinois that gives an opportunity to do both research and nutrition.

VINCE LARA: Now, you mentioned nutritional neuroscience is what your research focuses on. And what led you to study that?

NAIMAN KHAN: Well, that fascination of, sort of, merging those two disciplines started when I was a graduate student. I had a assistantship in the University of Illinois Extension program. And my job involved really working with teachers and children in elementary schools that had at least 50% of the population receiving free or reduced school lunch. And we were focused, of course, on that. In that study were focused on nutrition education.

But I spent a lot of time in schools. And it really got me thinking about academic achievement and cognitive health markers in children and whether our nutrition could be used as a way to meet that health gap that we know exists in many different communities.

We know that there are some implications of-- some households, some schools do better than others. And we know there's some variability in how well children do in school performance. And I just wondered if nutrition could be something we could leverage to do that.

And that fascination led into a postdoctoral position with Chuck Hillman, who was a-- Dr. Hillman, here at the University of Illinois, was doing work in pediatric exercise neuroscience. And that was where I received my neuroscience trainings working under him.

VINCE LARA: So you focused on diet and physical activity as well as the link to obesity and cognition. So I think, traditionally, people might see the brain and the heart as separate-- but what did you find when you looked at the interactions of those things?

NAIMAN KHAN: Yeah, so the philosophy sort of varies depending on which scientist you speak to. Traditionally, yes, people have studied the brain separately from physical health-- so cognitive health has been separate from physical health. But the reality is that they're co-dependent. We have evolved as a species to mature.

For example, from a developmental standpoint, cognitive development is in synchrony with physical development. And they really inform each other. And it turns out, if you look at the data, the epidemiological data, in particular, all the markers that affect cardiovascular health, chronic disease, those things-- for example, sedentary behavior, and even poor physical activity patterns, poor diet, elevation in blood markers that increase risk for heart disease-- these same factors are also predictive of cognitive health in individuals. And we see that quite a bit in the older adult literature.

And what we've been interested in examining is really-- when does that start? When do we start seeing that link between behavioral patterns and these health factors that we know are important for living a healthy life? When does that-- they start actually having an impact on cognitive measures?

And so far, we have been able to demonstrate this in young adults. We've shown it in preadolescent children and even in younger kids now. So we're doing some work in four and five-year-olds where we're seeing some very similar patterns. So it would be consistent with the hypothesis that health behaviors like healthy nutrition and physical activity, and of course, maintaining a healthy growth status, a healthy body weight-- these factors seem to be important for cognitive health even in early childhood.

VINCE LARA: You recently did a study that got some really good publicity on the link between children's cognitive processes and water. So what led you to study that?

NAIMAN KHAN: Really, what inspired that is that—our laboratory is interested in looking at diet quality. So at least, I don't think that there's only one way to eat healthy. And there are multiple aspects of our diet that we used or leveraged to even do that for a healthier lifestyle.

And we know that water is a marker of high diet quality. And that's been demonstrated. Most of the foods that are higher in water tend to be fruits and vegetables and water consumption. Hydration is vital. Adequate hydration is vital for survival. And that's been known for a long time.

So we were interested in-- previous work in our lab had looked at dietary fiber. We had looked at dietary consumption of cholesterol and some fatty acids. And another marker of diet quality is also water consumption. And so that's what led to that study.

And then, we also realized that in the literature, there's very little known about hydration in children and its implications for cognitive health. What's alarming, really, is that recent epidemiological data even suggests that majority of children in virtually most countries, but even in the United States, specifically, are chronically in a state of hypohydration, where then, we don't think they're adequately hydrated, based on some really good markers in urine.

So we thought it would be important to determine whether this chronic state of hypohydration has implications for cognitive health. And if we did provide children with more water to drink and modulated water intake-- to determine whether that would actually affect certain aspects of cognition.

VINCE LARA: Did you find or have you found that it's a lack of understanding the importance of water? Or is it a lack of access to water?

NAIMAN KHAN: So it's a combination of both. And when it comes to kids and children, the challenge is that they're more likely to have involuntary dehydration. But they depend on adults for much of their food intake. It's the same thing with beverages and water.

So unless adults are paying attention to making sure that kids have access to water-- it's being provided to them, it's likely that children also then have increased risk for dehydration. And that's a awareness that we just need to have in our communities and in families and schools to make sure children are having access to water.

And then, the other aspect of it is also the research gaps. As scientists in the area of behavioral sciences, we haven't really done a lot of work with water. Even though it's such a vital and essential nutrient to survival, it is often taken for granted. And we really haven't figured out or conducted randomized controls for trials to really determine what is the adequate amount of water necessary to really be healthy in all the different domains of health.

The current recommendations are really just based on, sort of, population patterns of what we think is adequate. But really, we don't know how much water should be consumed for particular outcomes of health. So in that regard, it's really a challenge of both sides-- it's awareness, access. And also just-- so as far as a research priority, it's just not been something that we've really done a good job at.

VINCE LARA: Now, we're conducting this interview in your lab. And you can see-- your lab was buzzing out there. So what kind of things are you working on that are upcoming that you're excited to talk about?

NAIMAN KHAN: Well, we have a lifespan approach in the laboratory. So we're conducting studies in-- from four and five-year-olds all the way to older adults. And as I mentioned earlier, there are many ways of living healthy. And if you just look at diet alone, there are many factors of diet that could contribute to cognitive health. And the same thing could go with physical activity and fitness as well. There are multiple components of activity that could be predictive of cognitive health.

So the work that we're doing in the laboratory is multidisciplinary. And that's really exciting for us. We like to merge that knowledge in and across disciplines. So it's hard to pick a particular area that I'm really excited about because it's all very exciting to me. I have a lot of different interests.

But I can tell you about some of the recent studies we're doing. Some of them focusing on younger children-- so four and five-year-olds. We are interested in determining whether the factors that we have shown are predictive in early adolescence-- so true also in younger age in terms of diet quality, aerobic fitness, and the effect on cognitive health.

We're excited about that area of research. There isn't a lot known in that area. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, we're focusing in the area of multiple sclerosis and trying to understand how a diet can impact some of the symptomology and quality of life in multiple sclerosis-- which we're excited about because there's some potential to really have an impact on people's lives.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Naiman Khan. This has been A Few Minutes With.

back to news