UAB, McWane issue healthy challenge to area children

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The title of the annual report released this past summer from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation pretty much says it all: F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2010.

More than 120 Birmingham metro area children between the ages of 7 and 13 participated in a recent nutrition boot camp at McWane Science Center as part of the Healthy Change in Your Community Challenge.

Adult obesity rates increased in 28 states this past year, and childhood (ages 10-17) obesity rates also were on the rise. Alabama tied with Tennessee at No. 2 for adult obesity rates and ranked sixth nationwide in childhood obesity.

Numerous intervention programs are being developed to combat these alarming trends. UAB’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science and the Department of Nutrition Sciences has partnered with McWane Science Center and One Great Community to develop a unique effort to get kids moving.

The Healthy Change in Your Community Challenge, a competition for more than 120 area children ages 7-13 from the Birmingham metro area, began in October 2010 and will end in May. McWane Center recently hosted an overnight nutrition boot camp to educate participants and their families about fun in healthy eating and healthy, active lifestyles.

UAB’s Nutrition Sciences was asked to be involved with all aspects of the challenge and provide evidence-based nutrition information and behavior-change strategies to improve eating and exercise habits.

“We are providing the nutrition expertise and also measuring dietary changes and health outcomes as part of the project,” says Amanda Brown, Ph.D., director of the dietetic internship and graduate program in clinical nutrition. “Community Challenge is an innovative way to promote healthy eating and physical activity in the community. McWane Center has wonderful experience in developing fun, hands-on educational programs like the nutrition boot camp. We are interested in learning if the Challenge Project is going to lead to behavior changes that affect the health of individuals and the residents of the communities. We expect the program will help change the community environment to encourage physical activity and healthy food choices.”

Participating community groups include the STEP-Up After School Program at East Lake United Methodist Church, members of the DISCO Writing Camp at Cornerstone School in Woodlawn, Worship Center Christian Church Children’s Ministry (Roebuck location), participating churches of Congregations for Public Health Inc., West End Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts from several troops in the area.

The Community Foundation, Jefferson County Department of Health and UAB Benevolent Fund are funding the project. Each participating community group receives funding to develop a plan or event to encourage their communities to embrace healthy change.

“We’re asking them to come up with a plan or prototype to implement healthy change in their community,” says UAB graduate student Meme Inge, a registered dietitian and health and wellness intern at McWane Center who is coordinating the challenge. “For example, one of the Girl Scout leaders is in charge of church potlucks and she’s trying to encourage her people to provide healthier meals. One after-school group writes a blog, and they had different excerpts from their kids about the fun they’ve had making healthy foods. Another group wants to host a fun day and invite local professional athletes.

“They’re trying to think of fun ways to encourage their community to get healthy,” Inge says. “This is a population that has a lot of family members with diabetes, and they can’t afford medication. They see first-hand how important it is, even though we try to make these exercises fun.”

Inge conducts monthly meetings and sends twice-weekly e-mails to share recipes and discuss healthy concepts with each of the groups. She also provides guidance on ways to incorporate the strategies in their projects.

Some of the projects include brainstorming recipes the kids can help their parents make at home and fun family exercises that require little or no equipment.

“It’s all about doing what we can to strengthen the kids’ connection to healthy concepts and get them more personally involved with health and wellness,” Inge says.

It’s also a way to get children to share their knowledge and excitement with their parents, Brown says. If children are engaged, and they have their parents’ encouragement, they will work to change their communities.

“Children can be a powerful model for change, especially when they’re excited about something,” Brown says. “Involving the parents increases the chances that the information that’s learned and the behaviors you’re trying to enforce will become part of their daily lives. Also, community participation in the development of health and wellness programs greatly increases the likelihood that successful changes will be made.”

The Healthy Change in Your Community Challenge will have several more meetings and events before wrapping up in May with an awards dinner, during which each group will receive prizes ranging from $100 to $1,000 to keep their project going during the next year.

Traineeship important

Inge is UAB’s “boots on the ground” for the project, Brown says, and she will continue to have input in the development of these follow-up meetings.

Inge came to UAB for dietetic internship opportunities, to earn a master’s degree and complete a traineeship.

The dietetic internship program, which Inge completed in 2010, began in 1964. The program provides the supervised practice portion of the training for registered dietitians before they take a national certification exam.

“The students complete 1,200 hours of supervised practice in different areas of nutrition and dietetics,” Brown says. “They practice nutrition therapy in community and public health settings, and in clinical inpatient and outpatient settings, including pediatrics, adult and elderly adult care. They also complete training in food-service system management.”

The master’s program in clinical nutrition is geared toward individuals who are registered dietitians or have a nutrition background. The program gives students advanced training in biochemistry, statistics and research study design so they have career opportunities in advanced clinical and community settings, in academic medical centers as instructors or clinical researchers, or in a health or nutrition sciences doctoral program. Specialty practice areas within dietetics, including pediatrics or nutrition support, require a master’s degree.

“Registered dietitians like Meme are the nutrition experts,” Brown says. “In clinical, community and wellness settings, the registered dietitian has the science background and clinical and community-based training to translate current nutrition research into practical advice to treat and prevent nutrition-related diseases, such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

UAB offers traineeships like the one at McWane Center as part of the Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition Program. Inge has been given the opportunity to shape the Healthy Change program as she sees fit while learning other vital skills, including managing budgets.

“I have much help from Shauntice Allen, Ph.D., who is the program manager in the School of Public Health and the program director for One Great Community,” Inge says. “And I’ve received tremendous support from Dr. Brown and the people at McWane Center. There are so many things I have to follow from a budgetary aspect, and there are many groups involved in this initiative. I can engage them for input and shape the program to how I think it should be. I feel like everything I’ve done has more than adequately prepared me for what’s ahead.”