Research Snapshot: Helping curb the childhood obesity epidemic in rural Minnesota

Home isn’t just where the heart is; home is also where your meals are. Healthy meal and snacking habits at home could be building blocks for battling childhood obesity.

Jayne Fulkerson, Ph.D., professor in the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, is partnering on a new family-based project to help boost healthy eating habits. She believes engaging parents and creating a home environment that nurtures healthy eating habits is key to setting the stage for kids.

“Children may spend a lot of time at school, but for many children, most of their meals and snacks are eaten at home,” Fulkerson said. “The foods and beverages made available and offered at home inform what they consume throughout their day.”

Children in rural communities are particularly at risk for the development of obesity. That’s why Fulkerson will lead a study, in collaboration with community partners, Allina Health and the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, on effective means for preventing children and their families from gaining excess weight.

“There are several challenges for families in rural areas in relation to obesity,” Fulkerson said. “Access to healthful foods and affordability are big problems for many families in rural communities.”

The program, New Ulm-Healthy Home Environments via the Mealtime Environment (NU-HOME), will focus on New Ulm, MN, where obesity prevalence rates exceed national rates. The 7-month family-based program targets 7 to 10-year-old children to help them develop healthy behaviors and habits. NU-HOME will run in conjunction with the Hearts Beat Back program aiming to help adults in New Ulm build and maintain healthy lifestyles.

The goals of NU-HOME include promoting healthy habits by encouraging:

  • Regular meals for families to cook and eat together;
  • Nutritionally sound and appropriately proportioned snacks and meals;
  • Physical activity, through community partnerships;
  • Reducing at-home screen time

Fulkerson will study how the program affects childhood obesity rates in the community.

“If families are having trouble finding time to have meals together, we want to help them identify strategies to increase the number of family meals per week,” Fulkerson said. “If they are already eating family meals, we want to help them focus on making the meals healthful.”

Fulkerson hopes these tactics will reduce obesity in study participants and can be translated other communities.

“Our hope is to work with families to provide healthful food and activity environments in their homes by working with the whole family,” Fulkerson said. “Families will set health behavior goals about their food and activity home environment and support each other in making positive changes.”

Fulkerson is the lead investigator on this five-year 3.3 million dollar project funded by the National Institute of Health.

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