Alaska Scientists Awarded $1.8 Million to Promote Healthy Eating and Active Play
Every third Alaska child is overweight or obese, and rates may be even higher in southwestern Alaska. So a team led by a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher will work with community members to test ways to promote healthy eating and active play, focusing on 3– to 5-year-old Alaska Native children.
Andrea Bersamin, associate professor of nutrition at UAF, and her team have received $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the work.
Bersamin is a faculty member at the Center for Alaska Native Health Research, part of UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Project co-directors are Diane King, who directs the Center for Behavioral Health Research and Services at UA Anchorage’s Institute of Social Economic Research, and Mallie Paschall, senior scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, California.
The team first will explore community perceptions of what makes it easy or hard for young children to eat a healthy diet and be active. Then, working with a community advisory board, the team will develop a home-based program that helps parents prepare and offer healthy food and be role models for their young children.
Preschool-aged children consume about 70 percent of their calories at home, and parents are the primary “nutrition gatekeepers.”
The researchers will work through local Head Start agencies, federally funded programs that promote learning, health and family well-being for children from birth to age 5.
The program will deliver tips and support through text messages and a mobile website.
“Ultimately, we hope that this project will improve our understanding of how to promote healthy lifestyles in rural and remote communities in a way that is relevant, cost-effective and sustainable,” Bersamin said.
For two years, researchers will track children and parents enrolled in the program. The research will measure their progress on five actions recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to combat obesity. The CDC recommends increasing vegetable and fruit consumption; decreasing sugary drinks; decreasing “junk” food with high calories and few nutrients; increasing active play; and decreasing time spent in front of the TV, computer or mobile phone.
“Making half your plate fruit and vegetables,” a key message from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is not easy in southwestern communities where commercial produce is expensive or unavailable.
“We envision a program that promotes the traditional food system and makes it clear that plants and berries from the tundra count — they’re vegetables and fruit, too,” said project collaborator Diane Peck, with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Obesity Prevention and Control Program. The department has estimated the prevalence of obese and overweight children in Alaska.
Bersamin and her collaborators will work with UAA assistant professors Amanda Walch and Kathryn Ohle to develop a statewide training module focused on understanding childhood obesity and its prevention in Alaska Native communities.
Bersamin’s team has also joined forces with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium researchers, who are running a school-based nutrition study within Head Start in the same Alaska communities. ANTHC’s work, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is led by Dr. Timothy Thomas, the Consortium’s Clinical and Research Services Director, and Kathryn Koller, research nurse and epidemiologist.
“The opportunity to collaborate with the ANTHC study team is extremely exciting,” Bersamin said. “Together with Head Start and the participating communities, we will be able to learn how schools, families and communities can create environments that support healthy eating and activity in young children.”