How do you make a Western diet — for a mouse?

Jeffrey Harder preps meals, but he’s not in a kitchen and he’s not exactly cooking.

The JAX postdoctoral associate in the laboratory of Professor Simon W.M. John is exploring the role of diet in neurodegeneration in age-related diseases, specifically in glaucoma.

“A number of studies show that some age-related diseases are less common in Asia,” Harder says. “So we are looking at the role of diet in preventing or exacerbating diseases involving neurodegeneration.”

Harder has concocted a range of feeding regimens for the mice in his study, which are now in use in other JAX labs for research in  Exploring the diet-life span connectionWhat's wrong with too many cupcakes? Mauro Costa's research with mice is revealing the metabolic effects of our dietary choices.Alzheimer’s disease and aging. The grain-based food that JAX mice regularly receive is “as healthy as you can get,” he says. To provide mice with a diet that provides adequate nutrition yet represents a typical Western diet, Harder formulated a food with a less-healthy protein source and increased animal fat, cholesterol and salt.

He says he tastes all of his “recipes” and while he doesn’t find this high-fat diet appealing, mice given a choice will eat the Western-diet offering and leave the normal, healthy food untouched.

Here is a look at some of the specialized diets being used by researchers at JAX:

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  • Sweet stuff: With more than 50 percent fat and plenty of sugar, this is the mouse equivalent of living on premium ice cream. Because it packs on the pounds (or more precisely in the case of mice, the grams), this is the diet of choice for understanding obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.
  • Western diet: The fat-protein-carbohydrate profile of this chow mirrors what you’d find on a fast-food menu, including the extra cholesterol and salt. Mice on this diet exhibit vascular inflammation, glial reactivity and other symptoms common to dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases of aging. Do you want fries with that?
  • Strictly vegan: This is the standard laboratory diet of JAX mice, composed of whole grains fortified with vitamins and other supplements for maximum mouse health and longevity. In diet studies, this chow is fed to the mice that are the controls in the experiment.