The University of Delaware's Shannon Robson received a Scientist Development Grant from the American Heart Association to investigate the impact of a low energy dense diet in children. This type of diet includes foods with more water, fiber and air, and less fat. Such foods include fruits and vegetables. With the help of UD nutrition students, the Behavioral Health and Nutrition (BHAN) assistant professor is comparing a low energy dense diet to the standard MyPlate recommendations put out by the United States Department of Agriculture. MyPlate helps consumers make better food choices based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
While recruiting families for the three-year study, the Energy Balance and Nutrition Laboratory saw it could do much more for the community than just simply asking people to participate.
"Part of doing research is engaging with the community, yet researchers too often go to the community and say, 'Hey, want to be in our research study?' and don't give anything back," Robson said. "Understanding this dynamic, we decided to do something with the community so the families know who we are and may be encouraged to engage with us more."
Jennifer and Benjamin Tillett, research participants from the Newark community
Jennifer and Benjamin Tillett, research participants from the Newark community, engage in an assessment at the Energy Balance and Nutrition Laboratory. Robson goes above and beyond to provide nutrition education to preschoolers around Newark, who may receive limited nutrition education elsewhere. The overarching goal is to improve the knowledge of preschool children in hopes they will make healthier dietary choices. It benefits the research, but also aids the local community, something at which the UD College of Health Sciences is adept.
"It's a win-win situation," Robson said. "We are providing nutrition education because most children may not get that in school and eating habits form early in children."
Robson has eight undergraduate students and one graduate research assistant participating in this research. The undergraduate and graduate students have gone to seven different local preschools providing nutrition education to 230 preschool students in the Newark community.
During each preschool visit, UD students read to the children, paint with fruits and vegetables, and make a healthy snack. In addition to the nutrition education session, the researchers measure the heights and weights of all the children (with parental permission) for the study.
"They love it," said junior Kelly Brogan. "They just love to get involved and tell us which vegetables they eat when we go through the book."
"The teachers enjoy it, too," BHAN graduate student Samantha Rex said. "They tell us that they do their best to provide nutrition education in the classroom, but a lot of the kids don't eat that many fruits and vegetables at home."
It is difficult to engage parents with young children in a research study as families often have limited time. They also are not familiar with the researchers. The solution was to build a relationship with the parents and strengthen their understanding of how nutrition research can be a resource for their family.
"Just posting flyers for your study with children doesn't often get a response in the community," Rex said. "But going into classrooms, teaching the children lessons, and being able to call families to tell them about the study is more successful."
In the future, Robson and her students hope to return to the schools to further the kids' nutrition education.