Nutrition faculty receive $800,000 for anti-obesity project for ‘tweens’

Two faculty members in the Nutrition Department have received a four-year, $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a project titled “Tween POWER: Preventing Obesity through Wise Expenditures of Resources.” The project will examine the thinking and spending patterns of 11- to 14-year-olds about food and beverages to develop a curriculum to promote wiser food choices for “tweens.”

Elena Carbone, assistant professor, and Jean Anliker, associate professor, say obesity is one of the most common nutrition-related problems in the U.S., and its prevalence is increasing in both children and adults. Carbone says that while fast food restaurants, schools, vending machines and other commercial food sources have been criticized, few studies have measured the contributions of these sources or the thinking processes involved as adolescents make their food choices in these settings. “To effectively modify dietary and physical activity habits of youth, the purchasing power of children and adolescents and the specific efforts of food and beverage companies to influence their spending cannot be ignored,” says Carbone.

Tween POWER, which also involves the universities of Connecticut and Maryland, seeks to address these issues by collecting qualitative and quantitative information from 11- to 14-year-old white and Hispanic “tweens,” who will be recruited through the UMass Children, Youth and Families Program in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The focus in the first year of study will be on collecting data to examine personal consumer spending on food and beverages and the thought processes that “tweens” use to make these decisions. Carbone and Anliker plan to conduct interviews using “think-aloud” techniques and micro-cassette recorders to capture the thoughts of the youth as they make their purchasing decisions at fast food restaurants, school cafeterias and other locations. They also plan to hold focus groups in the spring to explore adolescents’ concerns about money and health and their preferences for educational topics, themes, materials and approaches. All of this will feed into a later phase where Carbone and Anliker say they will develop and test a dialogue-based curriculum to teach “tweens” how to see through marketing strategies and become wiser food consumers, with the overall goal of obesity prevention.

“We’re excited to move forward with this innovative, fun and interactive program to promote health among adolescents,” says Carbone.