Our interview with Natasha Haskey

Natasha Haskey is a Registered Dietitian currently working towards her PhD within the Centre for Microbiome and Inflammatory Research at the University of British Columbia. We caught up with her to find out more about her career and research… 


1. Can you tell us about your career path, and what led to your interest in the diet for the gut microbiome?

I have been a dietitian for over 20 years now, I have always been fascinated with how diet plays a key role in health prevention and management of chronic health conditions. As I continued to practice dietetics, there were circumstances where current nutrition management did not seem to be working. I would turn to the scientific literature to determine if there was any new and emerging scientific information. It was through this research that I became interested in diet and the gut microbiome. I started to delve into the subject area, realised that there were few dietitian experts in the field so I decided to begin a PhD to further develop my expertise.


2. You attended ‘The 8th Gut Microbiota for Health World Summit’, what were your key messages from the summit regarding probiotics and the gut microbiota? 

Probiotics have beneficial effects on the gut microbiome when used properly.  This means we need to use the correct strain for the condition attributed to the beneficial health effects. Each strain works differently in the body.


3. What does a typical working day look like for you? 

No day is typical in research!  As I have shifted my focus to microbiome work, I now am involved in laboratory experiments, teaching, writing (and more writing), in addition to seeing clients for my clinical research study. I continue to maintain a nutrition consulting component in my work so I also do presentations, write blogs and complete virtual consultations. Mentorship of students is also a passion of mine so I always have a few students working with me.


4. You are currently researching how dietary fat impacts the gut microbiome, inflammation and disease activity in patients living with Ulcerative Colitis.  What effects do saturated fatty acids have on our gut microbiota compared to polyunsaturated fatty acids and how do these effects change in a healthy person versus someone with Ulcerative Colitis? 

The results of my clinical trial are pending, however there is some really interesting published data in animal models that has come out of The Centre for Microbiome and Inflammatory Research. It is clear that the type of fat we consume matters, as each type of fat will affect the gut microbiome and inflammation differently. A diet rich in omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (e.g., corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils) promotes chronic inflammation which enhances colitis, whereas a diet that includes saturated fatty acids (from milk fat) in combination with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (e.g., fish oils) can be protective.


5. You contributed towards the book ‘Gut Microbiota: Interactive Effects on Nutrition and Health’ that was published in 2018. Were there any challenging topic areas to write about and if so why was this? What is your opinion on other gut health books that are out there that claim to provide the perfect diet to getting a healthy gut? 

One of the most challenging areas to write was the practical dietary recommendations because right now there is no specific diet that is known to “cure” the microbiome. The evidence is continually evolving in this area and we learn more each day but we still do not have all the answers.

There is a plethora of books out there that claim to have found the cure for the microbiome, unfortunately there is no scientific backing to these claims. Much of the information is based on anecdotal information.


6. As Clinical Assistant Professor in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan, have you seen any changes in the nutrition curriculum regarding the gut microbiota and pro/pre-biotics over the past few years? If so what changes have been made? 

All Canadian schools of dietetics have accreditation standards that guide the teaching of dietetic students. The accreditation standards include competencies that all dietetic students receive education on the microbiome which includes pro/pre-biotics.

At the University of Saskatchewan, I provide students with lectures on nutrition and the gut microbiome, in addition to pro/pre-biotics. I also provide education to human kinetics and nursing students at University of British Columbia.


7. What do you enjoy the most about your job?

I love learning – I learn something new every day.  The field of the gut microbiome is challenging as it encompasses many fields such as: nutrition, gastroenterology, immunology, bioinformatics, microbiology and more.  I have had to develop a whole new skill set that go beyond my dietetics training.  I absolutely love the challenge and discovery of this field.


8. As a self-proclaimed foodie and a Registered Dietitian could you leave us with a few of your favourite meal ideas that both you and your gut bacteria love? 

I love to start my day with a healthy breakfast.  As I am often in a rush, my “go to” is Overnight Oats! It is simple but keeps me full and the fibre feeds my microbes.

I am working on adding more plant-based meals into my diet, as certainly incorporating more plant-based meals into our diet is not only beneficial for the gut microbiome. These Buffalo Cauliflower Tacos are my new favourite!

And who does not love a gut healthy dessert? These Black Bean Brownies are the bomb if you are craving some chocolate!