Five-State, Five-Year, $2.5 Million Study to Explore Cooking and Family Meals as Ways to Prevent Childhood Obesity

Researchers at the University of Maine are leading a five-state, five-year, $2.5 million USDA study to combat childhood obesity, and they are using an unlikely tool to do so — cooking.

The project, called iCook, is focused on improving culinary skills, promoting family meals and increasing physical activity.

The study, which is being conducted at the five land grant universities in Maine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia, is designed to test the effect of a two-year intervention on body mass index (BMI) of youth.

In Maine, a team of researchers, students and University of Maine Cooperative Extension faculty members are being led by Adrienne White, human nutrition professor, and Kate Yerxa, statewide educator for nutrition and physical activity.

“The long-range goals are for obesity prevention,” White says. “Maintaining weight within the normal percentile curves is what would be desired, as well as increasing culinary skills and eating together as a family.”

The American Medical Association recently announced it has adopted a new policy classifying obesity as a disease. Obesity affects 30 percent of American adults and has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Obese” and “overweight” are labels for ranges of weight greater than what is considered healthy for a given height and is determined by a person’s BMI, which correlates to their amount of body fat, the CDC says.

Recruitment for iCook participants is under way for children ages 9 and 10, and the adult responsible for preparing the majority of the children’s meals. Participants need to be free from food allergies, be willing to eat from all food groups, and have computer and Internet access at home. Each pair will be compensated $80 over the study period.

The goal of recruiters is to have 100 pairs participate in each state. The Maine researchers are offering the opportunity for pairs to participate in areas around Orono and Ellsworth through UMaine Extension youth programs.

Once participants are recruited, they will randomly be assigned to a control or treatment group. Half the participants will be in the treatment group and will attend six two-hour-long classes every other week for the first 12 weeks of the project and have access to the iCook website, a place to share and track progress, throughout the two-year period.

“All states are doing the same thing,” White says. “At the very same time; the very same measurements and the very same structure.”

Assessments are scheduled to begin July 29 and classes will start during the third week of August. The classes will include topics such as proper food handling and preparation, nutrition groups and structured mealtimes. Cooking and exercises will be done during classes. Extension nutrition staff, 4-H leaders and UMaine students will teach the Maine lessons.

The inspiration for iCook came from a similar project led by White called Maker of Meals that focused on adults who prepared meals for children in Washington County.

White, community partners led by Colin Windhorst and students, including Douglas Mathews, a human nutrition doctoral student from Sanford, Maine, conducted the pilot study that laid the groundwork for the USDA project.

Mathews, who is using iCook as the focus of his Ph.D. project on program evaluation, was part of the grant-writing process and now helps manage iCook across all five states. Mathews also worked with Rainstorm Consulting of Orono to create the iCook website which he describes as a “mashup of some of the more popular social media sites,” with sharing features similar to those on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

The website is designed to create an online community connecting participants from the five states through blogging, chatting and sharing media. Researchers will monitor the children’s growth, development and health habits through website activity, online surveys and physical measurements.

Carolyn Stocker, a third-year food science and human nutrition major and member of the Honors College from Westfield, Mass., is one of the seven undergraduate students assisting White and Mathews as a student researcher on the study and is helping to recruit participants this summer.

“I hope this project accomplishes what it has set out to do, which is prevent childhood obesity,” Stocker says. “This project approaches it directly while emphasizing the importance of cooking, eating and exercising as a family.”

Stocker, who is looking forward to gaining field experience, says she believes iCook will also allow children and adults to feel more comfortable working with food and in the kitchen, and she hopes it will become a bonding experience for the families, strengthening relationships.

All participants — those in the control and treatment groups — will complete surveys and have physical measurements taken four times throughout the study. Measurements for the children include height, weight and waist circumference. Children and adults will have their blood pressure taken during the four screenings.

Meaghan Brown, a graduate student studying human nutrition from Vassalboro, Maine, is coordinating the study in Maine. Brown is responsible for managing the collection of data. She is also writing her master’s thesis on topics related to the project, such as family dynamics and quality of life.

Brown, who hopes to build relationships with her fellow researchers and program participants, would like iCook to leave a lasting impression on participants.

“I hope they continue what they learn outside the study,” Brown says. “It is important for parents and children to be physically active, eat well and spend time together.”

Study results will also be used in curriculum development that will be integrated into UMaine Extension youth programming. During the fourth year of the study, iCook will be tested for sustainability by its practicality in a nonresearch setting, White says.

“Ultimately we want this curriculum to not sit on a shelf,” White says, adding the community-participatory approach to the study should help increase the sustainability of the team’s work.

White wants participants to be able to go to the grocery store together, know how to make healthful selections and look forward to cooking and eating together. She believes these positive life changes could lead to healthier and happier lives.

“We hope people begin to cook more and eat together more and be more aware of their food,” White says. “We just want people to get back to loving food, understanding food and being able to work with food.”

White says culinary skills and eating together as a family are considered important aspects of following a nutritious diet. She says researchers have shown adolescents are less likely to engage in deviant behavior or to have eating disorders when their families eat together.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747