Undergraduate Researcher lends a hand – and carrot – to her peers

by Jacoba Mendelkow

In 2007, Katie Brown, an Undergraduate Research Fellow in Utah State University’s

nutrition and food sciences department, had just finished assisting in a research study on the “Freshman 15,” for which she compiled and analyzed data. The “Freshman 15,” the weight freshman are said to gain during their first semester away at college, is a serious health concern because the weight is typically retained, and added to, during adulthood.

Katie and her faculty mentor, Heidi Wengreen, decided to stage an intervention for incoming freshman students. That year, students participating in USU’s orientation program, Connections, learned about nutrition and healthy food choices in the student-taught course, “Healthy Food Choices 101.”

Brown and Wengreen formulated a plan to educate new students about food choices and their consequences. The first step was discussing food offerings and menus with Connections director Noelle Call and food services staff. “Cookie size decreased, and with it, calories—from 275 for the usual mega-cookie to 55 for a regular-sized cookie. In addition, fruit salads replaced potato salads. Pasta salads were made with more vegetables and less mayonnaise,” said Brown. Food Services also did not automatically include brownies in the lunch boxes but offered them separately so students made a deliberate choice to eat them.  Also, water was offered as a healthier alternative to the more calorie-rich punch or soft drink.

To make sure that all students enrolled in Connections were aware of the importance of food choices, a survey to assess self-reported weight, eating habits, and nutrition knowledge was administered to the 1800 students seated in the Kent Concert Hall just prior to the President’s welcome. A typical question was “You are eating lunch on campus and want to make a health selection. The healthiest way to fill your plate would be to make sure that at least one-half is filled by 1) rice or pasta; 2) meat; 3) potatoes; or 4) fruits and vegetables.”

Some 120 students chose to be included in the intensive research study, each weighed and measured after completing a survey about their diet and physical activity behaviors.  One-half of that group received nutrition education, while the other 50 percent did not. According to Brown, students who participated in this research study and received nutrition education were less likely to gain more than 5 pounds than those who did not receive additional nutrition education.

Class instructors in the Connections program could opt for a visit by dietetics students and participate in the Healthy Food Choices 101 course. In its first two years, over 1,200 students participated in the course. “Something we really tried to teach the students was the importance of having a healthy relationship with food,” said Brown. We emphasized the importance of not only making nutritionally sound choices, but also being aware of the amount of food consumed. We encouraged them to listen to their bodies and to eat when hungry. Finding the balance between eating too much and eating too little is an important concept to learn because both weight gain and eating disorders can be problems for college students.”

According to Call, “The food changes Katie helped make in the Connections lunches became permanent. In fact, because of those changes, the instructors have become more aware of the treats that they were providing their classes during the Connections experience.”

“I learned so much in the process,” said Brown, one of four Utah Governor’s Scholars in 2006. She continues to work on educating incoming students to USU.

In addition to Healthy Food Choices 101 taught during Connections week, Brown currently compiles the data collected during the semester-long course Nutrition 1020, a breadth science class. The class focuses on vegetables that students can find in their local supermarkets, and class time is spent instructing students on ways to choose, cook, season and taste these healthy foods.

“We have a great undergraduate research program at Utah State,” said Joyce Kinkead, associate vice president for research. “It provides students, like Katie, with the opportunity to do hands-on research in their field of study and to apply what they’ve learned to real life.” And this is what Brown is doing—applying her knowledge and teaching it to others to help her fellow students learn the skills that will keep them healthy. So far the effects have been huge—but luckily Brown and her team of researchers, including her mentor, Heidi Wengreen, keep the portions, and hopefully the people, a little smaller.