Being a HERO: CSU, CU partner in $5 million childhood obesity prevention study

Researchers at Colorado State University and University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are launching a new effort to fight obesity in at-risk populations — with a research team from throughout the West, including New Mexico State University.

Researchers involved in the project include, from left, William Gavin, Patricia Davies, Laura Bellows and Susan Johnson.
Researchers involved in the project include, from left, William Gavin, Patricia Davies, Laura Bellows and Susan Johnson. (Click to enlarge.)

The team, headed by Laura Bellows of CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, will receive about $5 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the Healthy Environments Study, or HEROs.

“Our aim is to help families learn what is most helpful to create a healthy, active family, and then give them tools they can use at home,” Bellows said. “The trick is understanding the home environment and family dynamics around food and activity well enough so that we create tools that are helpful and fit the lives of our families.”

Phase one

CU Anschutz will play a leading role in the first phase of the HEROs study to help the team better understand families, as they will investigate how parents and children interact around activity and nutrition. Are parents playing active games with their kids? Are they offering healthy foods? What resources do parents need around health? How do they use technology with their children? Answering these and other related questions around activity and nutrition will help the team to develop targeted interventions in phase two of the study to improve the eating and activity behaviors of children and their families.

The group plans to develop workshops for families as well as provide computer tablets with pre-loaded activities, such as games and e-books, focused on promoting fun, healthy and developmentally appropriate eating and activity behaviors to families in rural Colorado communities that have high obesity rates.

Tablets are an ideal way to get inside the home as they can help educate, promote and engage parents and their children. The workshops will support parents’ learning of how/when to use the tablets, interact with their children around health, improve eating/activity at home, and get the help they need to make health a priority. The idea is to enhance the interactions between parents and their children when it comes to eating and activity.

“We need to take away parent confusion and guilt associated with feeding and activity,” said Susan Johnson, director of the Children’s Eating Laboratory in CU Anschutz ’s Department of Pediatrics. “We won’t be focusing on what parents and kids are doing wrong, but rather give them opportunities to learn and interact in ways that that will help foster new, healthier habits.”

For example, based on what they find in phase one of the study, researchers may deploy a mobile app to help families learn fun, active games to play in a small space, become more familiar with healthy, affordable foods, or learn to prepare a healthy meal together.

To help improve their chance of success, Bellows and her team in Colorado are partnering with researchers from New Mexico State University’s Learning Games Lab. Led by Professor Barbara Chamberlin, the Learning Games Lab will develop unique technology targeted toward parents and children to improve their knowledge, interactions and habits around healthy eating and physical activity.

“I’m a parent, and though I know the basics of healthy eating, and the value of play, when I fall short it is because I need help fitting it into our schedule, remembering the right time and place, and getting the support I need to be the parent I want to be,” Chamberlin said. “Technology can help with all of this — we can use an app to guide parents in interacting with their kids — helping them eat better as a family, and helping them know what kinds of activities are most important at different ages.”

Complement to Food Friends

The family-focused intervention is intended to serve as a complement to existing obesity reduction efforts in schools, such as the Food Friends Program, which was created by CSU nearly 20 years ago and has become well established in Colorado preschool programs as a fun and effective way for kids to try new foods and enhance motor skills, developing healthy habits early in life as a result. The group hopes the intervention in phase two will then help pull what has been successful with Food Friends in the school into the home environment to better support all-around growth and health.

In fact, all of the families chosen for the new HEROs project will be participants in the Food Friends Program. Half will be given the intervention of workshops and tablets and half will act as a control group, so that researchers can measure the effect of having the additional educational activities at home.

The researchers agree that one of the goals of the new HEROs project will be to alter the behavior of both parents and children to establish new eating and physical activity patterns at home through interaction. While parents will learn how to use the tablet in workshops, their kids will also play the games at school and then show their parents how the activities work at home. The idea is that parents will also participate in the activities to help their preschoolers get ready for school, just as they would help them learn their ABCs or read to them before bed.

“No one teaches you how to be active with your children to help them develop the motor skills needed to grow up healthy,” explained Patricia Davies, a CSU professor of occupational therapy. “Many parents struggle teaching healthy habits at home due to busy schedules, limited resources and lack of information.”

Multidisciplinary effort

The goal is to create an intervention that helps parents connect these dots. And since it is a multi-faceted intervention, Bellows emphasizes the need for expertise in a variety of areas, including child feeding and nutrition, motor development, physical activity, technology, child development, psychology, pediatrics and more.

“To be successful, we need collaboration from multiple departments and several universities,” Bellows said. “There is no way one department could tackle a project of this scope on their own. This is truly a multidisciplinary team science effort.”

In addition to Johnson and Davies, collaborating investigators include William Gavin, associate professor in Human Development and Family Studies at CSU; Jeanne Gleason, professor in media productions from New Mexico State University; and Richard Boles and Dr. Darcy Thompson of CU Anschutz’s Department of Pediatrics.

“No one has been able to figure out how to slow the childhood obesity trend,” Bellows explained, “but we hope this study will shed some light to move us in the right direction.”