FRC News

HDFS student exploring highly sweetened beverage consumption in developing regions

Tyler Wolpert
2/27/2017  3:30 pm

URBANA, Ill. – A smile comes to University of Illinois junior Ryan Walton’s face as he shows me a picture from his most recent trip to Honduras with the Global Brigades, an organization that provides opportunities to work with licensed medical professionals and community health workers in order to provide comprehensive health services in developing regions. Walton, a Human Development and Family Studies student and Abriendo Caminos undergraduate research assistant, looks like a mischievous older brother as he lifts one child on his shoulder and puts rabbit ears on another.

“The experience,” says Ryan, “was just awesome. After the first time, I fell in love with it. Every time we went to a village or community, no matter which one, there was always a line of 500 to 600 people just waiting for you, waving, and showing all this gratitude. Honestly, it’s pretty overwhelming.”

Originally from the south suburbs near Blue Island, Walton first heard about the Medical Brigades from his fraternity’s president who had already been on a volunteering trip the previous year. “I was blown away,” Ryan recalls, “and immediately wanted to be a part of it. After school, I want to be a physician—med school is definitely the goal. This opportunity seemed to combine all of my interests.”

Having previously been on two volunteer trips with the Global Brigades, Walton is planning a third this May after the spring semester ends. Volunteers typically stay in the area for 7-10 days and serve approximately four or five villages during their time there. The student volunteers spend the bulk of their focus on assisting medical and dental professionals who provide services for community members as well as helping with triage, medication packing, and health education. “In total,” Ryan says, “we help about 300 people a day in different communities, and you’ll probably see about 1,000 to 1,200 people in the week that you’re there.”

The next trip to Honduras will also serve useful for the undergraduate’s research pursuits. Walton wants to explore the connection between cardiovascular disease and the approximately 27 percent mortality rate in the region. Specifically, he plans to examine the possible relationship between the consumption of sugary beverages, inflammation in the body, and cardiovascular disease—which may be a contributing factor to the area’s relatively high mortality rate.

“From my earlier experiences,” says Walton, “there isn’t enough access to clean water in the rural areas, and there’s a lot of food insecurity.” But, he continues, one thing people have a lot of access to is sugary, sweetened beverages that are advertised pervasively throughout the area. “So what happens is that, many times, people will buy the soda because it’s viewed as a luxury and drink the contaminated water.”

Walton contends that the combination of this high consumption of sugary drinks with an underdeveloped public health system may be a contributing factor to the elevated rate of mortality from cardiovascular disease. Expanding on this idea, Walton submitted a research proposal to the University of Illinois’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) in the fall. The OUR provides research support grants to students from all disciplines to conduct research or undertake creative projects during the academic year both on and off campus.

After the spring semester has concluded, Walton will begin collecting his research data. “It’ll be a cross-sectional study,” says Ryan. “Basically, data collected from a certain group at a certain time.” In the study, Walton will collect blood from study participants and study specific biomarkers that may indicate causes of inflammation. “That way,” he says, “we can begin to get an idea of whether a higher consumption of sugary drinks is related to inflammation, which in turn can be contributing to the higher mortality rate.”

Along with looking at highly sweetened beverage consumption, Walton will work with Global Brigades on an additional project focusing on increasing nutritional knowledge and developing a better understanding of the association between nutrition and health in the region. To do this, he’ll use the nutrition curriculum from the USDA-supported Abriendo Caminos research project at the University of Illinois and adapt it to work in Honduras. The goal will be to help educate community health workers about links between nutrition and health in the area, and these health workers can then educate local community members about the impacts of nutrition on health outcomes.

Ultimately, this work will also serve as a bridge to Walton’s own professional goals. “I want to be a physician, but I also want to tie in research with that. The Brigades was a great experience for what I want to accomplish. I’d like to develop a similar organization that is able to help people on a global scale with all aspects of health and also focus on helping communities develop, which is something that deeply interests me.”

Editor's note: To reach Ryan Walton, email