November 2, 2014

Cornell Center to Study Eating Habits Among Families

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Cornell will become an “obesity prevention hub” after receiving over $800,000 in federal money to study how lifestyle changes can help low-income families live healthier lives, the University announced in late October.

Cornell’s Northeast Regional Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Center of Excellence — based in the Division of Nutritional Sciences — was granted the two-year, $856,250 award from the United States Department of Agriculture on Oct. 17 to research ways to address this problem, according to a USDA press release.

Prof. Carol Devine Ph.D. ’90, nutritional sciences, said low and middle-income families usually have “less time to devote to food,” which has been a big challenge that she and her team have found in their research.

“This has become an especially big challenge for low-income range Americans because they have much less control over their work schedules, work less desirable hours and more job transitions,” Devine said. “It is harder for them to manage a proper eating routine.

Clint Wattenberg ’03, a specialty nutritionist for the Cornell Healthy Eating Program at Gannett, added that low-income families have less access to nutritional food.

“Families and individuals of lower socioeconomic status tend to have less access to nutritious food, less access to nutrition education and fewer positive nutrition role models,” Wittenberg said.

Wattenberg added that many other factors are linked to unhealthful eating behaviors.

“In fact, many factors associated with low socioeconomic status such as chronic stress, less structured family systems, less structured mealtimes and easy access to low nutritious foods all are linked to unhealthy fueling habits,” Wattenberg said.

According to Devine, the research that the grant will fund will study a variety of environments people are surrounded by and will also focus on factors that cause certain food choices.

“Knowing what to do and what to eat is not nearly enough, because without a supportive food environment, any gains will be short-lived,” Wattenberg said.

Devine — who is also a research team member for Cornell NutritionWorks, a University-sponsored website for nutrition professionals — added that the grant is “innovative” in that it not only looks at changes in one’s behavior, but also one’s environment.

“For example, food is everywhere, but the wrong types of its advertising — [such as advertisements] for soft drinks and fast food chains — occur [in] low income areas,” she said.

The members of the team who will conduct the research come from a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise, according to Devine. Members are not only nutrition specialists, but also experts in the field of economics and communication.

Devine added that this diversity — alongside with Cornell being a land-grant university with a rich history as a research group for USDA sponsored programs — is why the University serves as an ideal place for an obesity prevention hub.

“The time is now for obesity research, because the solution will not be a quick fix,” Devine said. “I think we just have to look back. Obesity is a public health issue just like smoking is — it took 50 years for researchers to convince people to take [smoking hazards] seriously and achieve changes.”