When it isn’t enough to say “eat more vegetables,” USU research points to practical nutrition techniques

by Jacoba Mendelkow

Intervention isn’t a word to use lightly. You don’t have an intervention when problems aren’t really that bad. Interventions aren’t fun—sometimes people cry, sometimes people get defensive. After all, it is hard to give up the life you know and completely switch mindsets. It isn’t a comfortable place to be. It is really no wonder, then, that there are a few tears.

But interventions, while not easy, are worth the effort. The intervention staged by Heidi Wengreen, USU nutrition and food science professor, is like others: stepping in at a perfect time, helping to prevent further damage, educating and empowering those intervened upon. The difference is that Wengreen intervenes using vegetables.

The USDA recommends three to five servings of vegetables a day. People know this and, yet, very few eat enough, even though vegetables provide essential nutrients and little fat or calories. Because of our lower than recommended vegetable consumption, Wengreen embraces this call to arms: teach people how to eat healthy and how to prepare food. “People know that fruits and vegetables are good for them, but they often just don’t have the skills to prepare them in a way that tastes good,” said Wengreen.

Interventions aren’t successful if they focus only on eliminating bad or dangerous behavior. Participants must be educated—something must replace that which is removed. It isn’t enough to say eat more vegetables, or even to say it emphatically. Wengreen knows this: you have to teach people how to be healthy, some people simply lack the skills.

The importance of teaching is something Wengreen understands. Her colleagues, Tammy Vitale and Janet Anderson, teach students in Nutrition and Food Science 1020 how to cook vegetables using simple recipes. Students are invited to taste the food and are asked if this education has inspired them to incorporate more vegetables into their food choices. Each month a new vegetable is chosen: spinach, tomatoes, carrots; each month students learn all there is to know about that vegetable. Wengreen collects and analyzes the information provided by the students of Nutrition 1020.

USU students, however, aren’t the only ones benefitting from gaining access to this information. With the help of USU Extension and its nutrition programs, members of the community and state are able to access the Viva Vegetable curriculum, which includes recipes and DVDs. There are programs designed for adults and children, and because of a grant received from the Department of Education by the Cache County School District, newsletters are sent to parents of school-age children featuring a “Vegetable of the Month.”

Teaching is also something Wengreen asks of her dietetics students. As participants in Healthy Food Choices 101, a class taught during Connections Week, USU’s freshman orientation, students inform their peers about healthy eating habits. Wengreen developed the program as an intervention for new students to educate them with healthy eating habits and avoid gaining the dreaded “Freshman 15” (see sidebar).

Before asking her students to disseminate this information to incoming USU students, Wengreen and her team needed to better understand why students gain weight during their first year of college and how to prevent excessive weight gain. Incoming USU students were asked to participate in a survey that posed questions about diet and activity levels. They were weighed and measured and returned at the end of their first semester to be weighed and measured a second time.

Wengreen and her team discovered that students do gain weight during their first semester—but it isn’t 15 pounds, and it isn’t every student.  The study of the sample student population showed that 30 percent gained more than 5 percent of their body weight during their first semester—about 10 pounds. Students who gained weight their first semester tended to be those who lived on campus, ate in dining halls, ate fewer vegetables, and had less physical activity. Since then, Wengreen has advocated to emphasize of fruits and vegetables as options for on-campus diners.

Bolstered with this information, Wengreen and her student dietitians began teaching about healthy food choices. Peer mentors taught Connections students about portion size, about reading labels, and about the healthiest choices at fast food restaurants . Wengreen believes that the success of the peer-teaching program is because USU students only a few years older taught the incoming freshmen. Healthy Food Choices 101 remains a part of Connections Week curriculum because of its success.

Wengreen is a nutritional epidemiologist—she studies diseases in populations based on their diets. Freshman weight gain and low consumption of vegetables by student and community populations, therefore, is not just a static problem. It makes these groups more susceptible to diseases later on in life, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s. The Cache County Study on Memory and Aging, of which Wengreen is also a part, studies the older population by following 5,000 Cache Valley residents over age 60 to better understand how diet affects their health risks. Wengreen’s research is of cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia). She studies patterns in food consumption to see how B vitamins, antioxidants, and nutrients work together to reduce risks of memory loss.

Wengreen knows that people will eat more vegetables and be healthier if the vegetables are fresh. “Fresh vegetables taste better. People won’t eat it unless it tastes good,” said Wengreen. The freshest vegetables are those grown locally. And, because of this, and because of shifts in national trends, researchers in the departments of Plant, Soils and Climate; the Agricultural Systems and Technology Education; and the Nutrition and Food Science at USU are interested in sustainable agriculture and are actively seeking funding opportunities to better educate and serve students of USU and the local community.

Wengreen’s research is multifaceted in that it looks at improving life and health, regardless of age, through education. A long-time member of the Logan, Utah community, Wengreen wants to help those who live nearby and teach them how to prepare and enjoy healthy food. But her research isn’t specific to Logan, Utah to Cache Valley, or even to Utah State University. Interventions are singular, usually, but are for the good of a larger group. Wengreen believes this to be true—if you teach a few students and provide healthy options for bagged lunches for incoming students, if you research and publish your findings, if you help members of the community—eventually the knowledge just works itself out and is distributed to those who need it. After all, her neighbors need her help.