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The University Magazine

Nutrition expert serves food for thought

Penny Kris-Etherton

Penny Kris-Etherton ’71

Eat more fruits and vegetables, eat fewer fatty foods and sweets, keep your calories under control and increase your physical activity and you’ll improve your health and extend your life.

It sounds simple, but many Americans have difficulty following the standard  recommendations for care of the human body. Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, and other diet-related diseases and obesity are among the nation’s most serious health issues.

“It’s not easy to get people change their eating habits,” says Penny Kris-Etherton ’71 (medical dietetics). “I think we’re moving in the direction of helping people make changes, but more needs to be done.”

Kris-Etherton has devoted her career to studying the relationship between diet and risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and to communicating nutrition messages to health professionals, government representatives, the media and consumers.

Her interest in food began in her hometown of Amsterdam, N.Y. “My parents owned a little lunch room. My grandfather, who immigrated from Poland, opened it, so it was the family business.”

Today, the nutrition expert enjoys preparing and food for friends and family. “I like to cook, but now it’s more fruits and vegetables, more Mediterranean style.”

Her career focus began when, as a grad student at Case Western Reserve University, she read the work of Ancel Keys, a scientist and professor at the University of Minnesota. Keys is credited with showing a link between dietary fat, and blood cholesterol levels – a breakthrough in cardiovascular disease research.

“I thought this area of research would be a wonderful opportunity to combine my interest in nutrition with a meaningful cause,” says Kris-Etherton . 

She completed her master’s degree in nutrition at Case Western and earned a Ph.D. in human nutrition from the University of Minnesota. She then focused on lipid metabolism as a Katherine McCormick Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford University.

She joined the faculty at Pennsylvania State University in 1979 and now holds the title of distinguished professor of nutrition. Kris-Etherton has published more than 150 scientific papers and 10 book chapters and co-authored four books. Earlier this year, she was elected president of the Northeast Lipid Association and she is a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Society for Nutrition, the American Heart Association Councils on Nutrition, Metabolism and Physical Activity, and numerous other professional organizations. She has served on many national committees and review panels including the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee.

Her role as a nutrition expert means frequent travel to speaking invitations in the U.S. and abroad, but clinical nutrition research and teaching remains her passion.

“When I’m working with students – and especially non-nutrition majors – and I find those who are genuinely interested in health, it’s very exciting to me.”

What’s new in nutrition research? Kris-Etherton mentions studies showing benefits from eating nuts to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.  Also, people who follow current dietary guidance and consume a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes along with skim milk and reduced fat dairy products, lean meats and liquid vegetable oils are on track for healthy aging and decreased risk of chronic disease.           

Even more promising is research indicating that people who eat fish three times a week have half the incidence of age-related dementia. Expect to hear more about this.

“It’s really, really, really big.”