Want Suzanne Murphy’s number one tip for avoiding cancer?
Forget the super food currently in vogue and the dietary supplement of the day, and focus on your body mass index.
A member of the institute’s Food and Nutrition Board since 2005, Murphy will continue her work reviewing reports, convening committees and making recommendations to federal policy makers on issues related to the nation’s diet. (Read the news release.)
She was part of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that evaluated and recommended changes to nutritional standards in 2000. She has been involved in the current effort addressing the obesity epidemic. She’s particularly interested in looking at how food assistance programs can be improved.
“I’m chairing a committee that will make recommendations to improve the food served in childcare under a USDA program that covers 3 million children,” she says. “It’s pretty good to think you’re touching that many lives.”
A mathematics major, Murphy worked as an IBM computer system analyst for five years before deciding she wanted to focus on health. After earning a master’s degree in molecular biology, she pursued a PhD in nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, in order to do applied work. In 1998, she was recruited from UC Davis to join UH Mānoa’s Cancer Research Center of Hawaiʻi upon the retirement of noted nutritionist Jean Hankin.
“It’s been a privilege to work with senior epidemiologists who do wonderful work,” she says. She participates with the cancer center’s epidemiology group in the long-running Multiethnic Cohort Study, which has yielded important clues to the role of diet in cancer, as well as other research that involves a nutritional component.
“One of the things that has impressed me is that we don’t see a really strong association with specific nutrients or components in diet,” she says. “We consistently see consumption of fruits and vegetables associated with lower risk of developing cancer. But the strongest finding we have identified is the relationship between body mass index and risk of cancer.”
As director of the Nutrition Support Shared Resource, Murphy oversees the collection and maintenance of a database about the nutritional components of foods consumed in Hawaiʻi. “When I first came here, one of the first things I noticed was that the potato salad isn’t like what I was used to in California,” she recalls. “Here, it’s almost 50 percent mayonnaise. Having local recipes is very important if you want to know what people in Hawaiʻi are eating.”
She worked with UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to produce Hawaiʻi Foods, Nutrition with Aloha, a website where people can obtain information on foods and analyze their diets. She’s delighted that the college now offers a PhD in nutrition.
Murphy teaches an occasional class, most recently nutrition and cancer, and she serves on graduate faculty for epidemiology and public health in the John A. Burns School of Medicine, advising doctoral students.
She offers an additional bit of advice for the rest of us: “If you want to pop a daily multivitamin because you’re not eating as well as you should, it won’t do any harm. But megadoses of nutrients are a very bad idea unless prescribed by your doctor.”