GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Research at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids has revealed much about how the body’s metabolism works and how our overall health and wellness hinges on much more than just what we eat.

Dr. Sara Nowinski joined VAI’s Department of Metabolism and Nutritional Programming just over two years ago. She studies the nitty-gritty of the cells and is working to better understand why people metabolize the same nutrients differently.

“You have what pathways your cells are programed to use over others and so even if two people have a similar activity level and similar caloric intake, there are all these other factors that are going to influence how their cells decide to take those same nutrients that they have available and match them to their energetic needs,” Nowinski said.

It’s because of those differences that Nowinski said she is not able to definitively answer one of the first questions she is asked when people find out she studies the metabolism: What is the best diet? But discoveries through her work and those of her colleagues at VAI could help find the answer.

“I like to use this analogy of the mitochondria. Everybody’s heard this phrase, ‘mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell,’ but what does that actually mean?” Nowinski said.

She likes to use an assembly line analogy to explain:

“You have to process the pieces on the assembly line as they’re moving forward. And if that assembly line speeds up, then you have to be able to adapt and speed up with it. And if you don’t, maybe things start falling off, they don’t get processed correctly and so you have to be able to adapt and keep up and make sure you make everything run smoothly for the cell to maintain health,” she said.

Her work is part of the ongoing, groundbreaking research being done in the VAI’s Metabolism programs and the main topic of discussion for November’s A Conversation About Fueling Metabolism, hosted by Carol Van Andel, a philanthropist whose family started the Van Andel Institute.

“People are more conscious of their health and wellness and these conversations that we’ve had for over a decade raise that awareness of how you can be more cognizant of your body, of preventative measures, but also educate the audience so that they can also be proactive with themselves and their physicians,” Van Andel said.

The event is a rare opportunity for the community to get a closer look at the work Nowinski and others are doing. More than that, Van Andel said, it’s an opportunity for people to help support the work at VAI that continues to push discovery forward.

“One hundred percent of the proceeds of that day will go to support Dr. Nowinsk’s lab,” Van Andel said. “So what are we doing there? We are engaging the audience to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Nowinski echoed how critical the support is for her work and the work of her colleagues.

“None of the work we do in my lab would be possible without the VAI philanthropic community. There’s been so much support,” Nowinski said. “And so we’re super grateful for the engagement of the community because it allows us to really focus on the science.”

A Conversation About Fueling the Metabolism, hosted by Van Andel, is Nov. 15 from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. at the Van Andel Institute. Learn more about the event here.