Insight News

Feb 12th

U of M nets $7 million to create center to combat childhood obesity

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Center will work with parents of low-income families to improve nutrition, lifestyle

University of Minnesota School of Public Health and HealthPartners Research Foundation researchers have been awarded a $7 million federally-funded grant to tackle childhood obesity in a unique three pronged approach that focuses on parents of preschool children.

The seven-year grant, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will support the creation of a Childhood Obesity Center within the U of M where parental influence is paramount. Researchers will combine primary care, a child’s home environment and community-based intervention strategies into a program that aims to spark changes in food intake, physical activity and body weight among low-income, ethnically diverse children.

Ethnic minority and low-income children are at greatest risk for obesity. It is estimated that among ethnic minority children born in the year 2000 or later, 1 in 2 will develop type 2 diabetes, largely due to obesity, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Childhood nutrition experts, Simone French, Ph.D., from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Nancy Sherwood, Ph.D., from HealthPartners Research Foundation and the School of Public Health are heading the project.

“Childhood obesity prevention is critical because it is associated with a higher risk of adult obesity,” French said. “No successful long-term weight loss interventions for adults have been identified, so preventing obesity among children in the first place is critical. Parents play a pivotal role in promoting healthy food choices and an active lifestyle for their children. Childhood obesity prevention efforts have to start with parents.”

Intervention at multiple levels and across multiple settings is critical for both short-and long-term effectiveness due to the complexity of factors that influence obesity, French said.

First, the new Obesity Prevention Center will partner with pediatric and family practice clinics. The health care system is an important source of information about health risk prevention behavior, French said, but while most families have regular contact with a pediatric primary care provider in the early childhood years, few obesity prevention studies have been conducted in this setting.

In this study, primary care physicians will talk with parents about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity for their child. Each family will work with a designated “family advocate” at the clinic and during in-home visits to support healthy changes.

Second, researchers will work with parents through the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools’ Early Childhood and Family Education. Parents and children will attend weekly classes that focus on the family home environment and parenting practices around providing healthy food choices, limiting screen time and encouraging active play.

The third study component involves partnering with communities to increase the affordability and accessibility of healthy food and physical activity resources. The research team will be working with local stores to ensure there are healthy foods available such as fresh produce. They will also engage with community centers to create sports and recreation activities for parents and children. .

“Integrating obesity prevention messages and strategies and creating linkages among these settings where families spend much of their time offers potential for a sustainable approach that promotes healthy eating and physical activity as key factors in overall healthy child development,“ Sherwood said.

The $7 million grant will fund two studies: an initial two-year pilot study that will include 30 families and a second larger three-year study that includes 500 families. Researchers will begin the pilot study in late 2010.


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