UI faculty promoting healthier habits to reduce Iowa’s high obesity rate

A new report shows that Iowa has the fourth-highest percentage of obese adults in America at 36.4 percent, and a group of UI faculty aim to change that by focusing on the nutritional health of children.


Joseph Cress

College of Public Health on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Joseph Cress/The Daily Iowan)

Christopher Borro, News Reporter

A report by the policy organization Trust for America’s Health discovered that Iowa has the fourth-highest obesity rate in the country.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 36.4 percent of Iowan adults are considered obese. The only states with higher percentages are West Virginia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.

Faculty at the University of Iowa College of Public Health are engaged in numerous programs designed to prevent obesity by encouraging children to live healthier lives.

Natoshia Askelson, a UI assistant professor of community and behavioral health, said a large part of her work focuses on adolescents and monitoring their nutritional habits.

The projects she is involved with include the “Pick a better snack” initiative run by SNAP-Ed for elementary schools and the Agriculture Department’s “Team Nutrition” school-meal program.

Askelson said the projects are based on “pester power,” a marketing idea geared toward encouraging parents to buy healthy food for their children.

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“Marketers use pester power to get kids to get their parents to buy candy bars and sugary beverages,” she said. “We use that same technique to get parents to buy strawberries, or jicama, or kiwi, or grapes.”

Many of the students serviced by the programs are from low-income or rural communities, making access to healthier food harder to come by, Askelson said. Marketing was a good resource to use to encourage kids to eat more nutritious meals.

“How do you get kids in rural Iowa who have never encountered hummus to eat hummus?” she posed. “You don’t call it hummus—you call it dip.”

Preventing obesity early on can stave off health risks and social problems later in life. Lucas Carr, a UI associate professor of health and human physiology, teaches a course on the causes, effects, and treatment of obesity. Carr also works with the UI Obesity Research and Education Initiative.

“Obesity is a risk factor for a lot of chronic diseases, like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes … but it’s also a really expensive disease to treat,” Carr said. “There are also social consequences as well: People who are obese are often victims of weight stigma and weight discrimination.”

Despite these consequences, Iowa was one of six states to see its obesity rate increase from 2016 to 2017, according to the report. No states had their obesity rates decrease.

A program started in July incorporates UI students to teach the benefits of healthier lifestyles. Vickie Miene, interim director of the Institute of Public Health Research and Policy, is in charge of the Healthy LifeStars campaign, which focuses on promoting physical activity and goal-setting in addition to healthier food choices.

“As a society we do a lot of sitting … we don’t necessarily make the choice to move,” Miene said. “It’s probably not going to get better until we take an all-in approach, with education and putting resources toward obesity prevention, especially starting with kids, because they’re young and eager to learn.”

Miene said parent interaction is another goal of the initiative.

“We want to involve caregivers as much as we can, even giving the kids little tools they can give to their parents when they get off school so they can talk about what they ate and what they learned in the Healthy LifeStars Program,” she said.