Oct. 15, 2019

Bonnie Kaplan awarded 2019 Dr. Rogers Prize

Researcher has spent decades linking better nutrition to better mental health

Back in the 1990s, Dr. Bonnie Kaplan, PhD, started exploring the contribution of nutrition to brain development and brain function, facing skepticism from some of her peers. Undaunted, the professor emerita of the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine went on to publish dozens of papers showing the “transformative impact” of using nutrition to treat children with ADHD and other mental disorders.

Now, her decades of groundbreaking work, including 170 papers and book chapters of empirical research around nutrition, have been recognized with the 2019 Dr. Rogers Prize for Excellence in Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “The award is very meaningful,” says Kaplan, clarifying that nutrition is not an alternative medicine, rather it’s part of an integrative approach.

“Nutrition is foundational,” she says. “Most people now refer to the field as integrative health, because the people who study these complementary, alternative or integrative approaches are not anti-medication. We want medication in its place and we want to raise the awareness of the evidence base for integrative, non-pharmaceutical approaches.”

The $250,000 Dr. Rogers Prize is awarded every two years and is named for the late Dr. Roger Hayward Rogers, one of the first physicians in B.C. to provide nontraditional therapies for cancer patients.

“We are thrilled to see Dr. Kaplan receive the Dr. Rogers Prize, and to have her body of work recognized in this way,” says Dr. Cello Tonelli, senior associate dean of health research at the Cumming School of Medicine. “Her vision and leadership have increased awareness of the importance of childhood nutrition to the overall well-being of a patient, and we are immensely proud of the contributions she has made to clinical research.”

Kaplan, who is semi-retired, was the team lead of the Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition (APrON) study, a longitudinal study that’s following thousands of pregnant women and their offspring in Alberta. The $5-million study is tracking the development of the children to analyze the relationship between maternal nutrient status and child health and development.

She is also a founding member of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research which distributes information and research about nutritional approaches to mental health. Kaplan has also    established two charitable funds that support nutrient research, work that includes clinical trials at universities in Canada, the United States and New Zealand. 

Kaplan is very encouraged to see recent discoveries showing an improved diet enhances a healthy microbiome. Researchers exploring the gut-brain axis are finding microorganisms in the gut communicate with the brain and influence mental and physical health. “We are all converging from our different directions, confirming what our ancestors already knew,” says Kaplan.

Yet she points to a startling statistic: “Fifty per cent of our caloric intake in Canada is now from the lowest level of processed foods, called ultra-processed, which means very few nutrients,” she says. “It’s mostly chemicals.” The expert in nutrition and mental health suggests a few simple rules for your table: “Eat real food. Minimize processed food. If it comes in a bag, a package, or is soda in bottles, just avoid it.”