Nutrition expert Carla Prado named 2022 Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 honouree

From Brazil to Canada, Prado is defying the odds and finding new ways to bring her groundbreaking research to those who need it most

Donna McKinnon - 19 October 2022

When Carla Prado stepped out of the airport in Edmonton on March 2, 2004, she couldn’t breathe. Originally from Brazil, Prado had never experienced a temperature colder than 22 C. On that day in Edmonton, it was -20 C. 

“I want to go home,” she told her husband. “I can’t do this.”

Prado stayed. An international student with “everything to lose”, she arrived at the University of Alberta with few prospects but plenty of ambition. Her goal was to work with acclaimed clinical nutrition researcher Linda McCargar (now emeritus) in the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science, but there was no available position and no funding on the horizon — just a series of hopeful email exchanges.

Patience, prayer and a lot of hard work paid off. A grant came through, and Prado, now a “proud Canadian” who now runs her own lab at the U of A, is “living her truth” as a distinguished nutrition and metabolism researcher. 

“Persistence is one of the things that defines me,” says Prado, who today was named a 2022 Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 honouree. “I do things in a different way, and I rarely take no for an answer. Some may call it stubbornness, I call it vision and passion.”

As director of the Human Nutrition Research Unit, the largest research and training facility in Canada for the study of body composition assessment, Prado is dedicated to the study of body composition assessment, its effect on health, and how nutrition plays a role.   

Abnormal body composition such as low muscle mass is a predictor of morbidity and mortality in a variety of conditions and disease, says Prado, whose groundbreaking research on the relationship between muscle mass, nutrition and cancer demonstrates the independent effect of body composition on cancer recurrence, treatment and survival.

The focus of  her research is to develop targeted nutrition interventions for the prevention and treatment of low muscle mass in patients with diverse chronic conditions, especially cancer.

“Our work has helped to revitalize the importance of nutritional assessment in clinical settings,” says Prado. “I am committed to reaching out to those who can actually implement the change.”

Passionate about knowledge translation, Prado and her team produced a video in 2020 to educate the public on the relevance of low muscle mass on our health. It has been viewed and reposted more than 40,000 times and translated into seven languages (so far).

Earlier this year, Prado and two of her students published the High Protein Cookbook for Muscle Health During Cancer Treatment. She was not prepared for the attention the book received, which recently won the 2022 Gourmand World Cookbook Award in the category of Best University Press Free Publications.

“I had to ask for help from many people in my lab and one of the co-authors to manage the public interest and interview requests!” she says. “It shows the value of translating research results into something the public can use.” 

Her lab, says Prado, is like another family. 

“It’s important to have that connection, and I love bringing people together,” she says. “In our lab, we work hard to make it fun, and my students are extremely productive. I’m here to mentor my students and help them become successful scientists who are committed to knowledge translation and serving the greater community.” 

Prado admits that a video and cookbook are not traditional “scholarly” activities for an academic, but says that no paper or grant compares to the sense of accomplishment she feels in communicating her research into practical messages, engaging with the community and performing public acts of service. 

“By living my truth, I’ve established a very different program of research,” says Prado, who has, in addition to the cookbook, published over 220 highly cited peer-reviewed publications and given over 250 presentations worldwide. “If you define what your success looks like to you, you don’t have to worry about what other people think.” 

Defining Success

It was in the second year of her undergraduate program at the Federal University of Goias, Brazil that Prado announced that she wanted to be a professor. She had grown up surrounded by teachers, and her mother, a pharmacist and biochemist, had piqued her interest in nutrition and healthcare. From that point on, she strategically targeted all her experiences towards research, teaching and service. 

After obtaining her PhD and two post-doctoral positions (including the Cross Cancer Institute), Prado moved south to take up an academic position as assistant professor at Florida State University, but kept a photo of the U of A campus on her computer.

In 2014, Prado returned to the University of Alberta where she is now a full professor, a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute and a Campus Alberta Innovate Program Chair in Nutrition, Food and Health. 

“I wouldn't have had all these opportunities had I not stepped out of my fear,” says Prado. “I know that's a bit cliche, but it's true. Every time there is a barrier, or a research area that I don’t know about, I say, okay, I'm going to try to learn this.” 

In 2019, Prado was named one of Canada's Top 40 Under 40, an award that celebrates exceptional young visionaries and innovators in all sectors of society. Two years later, in 2021, Prado was named to the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists in recognition of her early career accomplishments. 

“Being a powerful academic researcher, for me, means the ability to positively impact my field from research to practice, and challenging the status quo,” she says. “A powerful person not only influences this change, but also inspires others to do the same. That’s why the theme of the 2022 Canada’s Most Powerful Women celebration resonates so deeply with me — being powerful means living your truth.”

Currently on sabbatical at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, where, among other things, she is working to establish new partnerships between the two universities. Beyond academia,  Prado spends as much time as possible with her young daughter. The Zumba enthusiast also exercises at least three times a week while watching her favourite classic television show, Murder She Wrote

“I moved here with two suitcases and we didn't know anyone,” says Prado. “From there to being in a prominent position as a professor, it’s nothing short of a fairy tale.”