My research focuses on nutrition education and health promotion with the goal of effecting behavior changes that prevent negative outcomes (e.g., unhealthy body weight and co-morbidities) and promote healthy lifestyles. Most health professionals intuitively feel that a complex interplay of personal and environmental factors affect dietary choices which, in turn, impact health outcomes. However, many of these factors have not been studied systematically to enable practitioners to design appropriate, effective interventions that result in behavior change and resonate with consumers.
Thus, my research team explores intrapersonal, interpersonal, and environmental factors that affect health behaviors using a polytheoretical socioecological approach. The purpose of this work is to describe these factors, investigate their impact on dietary choices and health, examine how they can be modified or mediated to change behaviors to result in healthier lifestyles, expand understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of nutrition education interventions, develop recommendations to improve nutrition education intervention effectiveness, and/or validate the recommendations via theory-driven educational program and materials design, implementation, and evaluation. A description of some of the work of the research team I lead is described below.
Effecting Behavior Change
Effecting Behavior Change Outreach
Nutrition and Health Outcomes
As role models and gatekeepers, parents strongly influence food and exercise behaviors of children and are key players in obesity prevention. To generate the most successful results, nutrition education interventions need to be placed within a family context and address multiple home environment lifestyle practices associated with weight status. My research team's work with the home environment has characterized factors influencing mothers' family food decisions and generated recommendations for improving home food environments; psychographically segmented mothers of young children based on factors guiding the food choices mothers make for their families; described, via inventories of the household food supplies, the nutrient profile of the food supply in these homes, how food supplies of families with and without overweight individuals differ, and how foods supplies differ by race/ethnicity and income; explored the relationship of Social Cognitive Theory concepts to the dietary intake and BMI of mothers of young children; described other home environment factors affecting body weight, such as portion sizes, TV food advertising and media literacy, food preparation/menu planning skills; and created a parent-directed home kitchen organization/food management makeover "proof-of-concept" intervention. We are currently conducting the HomeStyles project that aims to help 900 parents of preschoolers re-shape home environments and lifestyle practices to prevent childhood obesity.
Home Environment Outreach
College Campus Environment
Young adulthood is a transitional stage that puts these individuals at particularly high risk for unhealthy weight gain and obesity. Reciprocal determinism, from Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory, describes the simultaneous and reciprocal interplay between personal characteristics and behaviors and the environment within which the behaviors occur. Yet, little is known about the extent to which post-secondary education campuses support healthful lifestyles. My research team works in tandem with the USDA NC1193 Multistate group (nimss.umd.edu/homepages/home.cfm?trackID=13096) representing 17 universities to assess and address individual and environmental factors that influence eating behavior, body weight, and health outcomes of young adults. Our current work is focusing on developing a reliable, valid, easy to use index for assessing the healthfulness of post-secondary education campuses and permitting meaningful comparisons across campuses. This index is critical to improving the healthfulness of post-secondary education environments and supporting health behavior change among young adults.
Food Advertising & Nutrition Labeling
Food labels and advertisements are communication channels used by food manufacturers to transmit (encode) messages to consumers who, in turn, receive and decode them to derive their meaning. According to Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action, consensual understanding is reached when communications are free of distortion, coercion, and ideology and are truthful, sincere, comprehensible, and legitimate. My work in this area began with content analyses of food labels and advertisements to describe their content, then moved on to examining consumer perceptions and interpretation of this content. Currently, my team is investigating assumptions and food selections decisions consumers make based on food label and advertisement content, with the goal of informing food label and advertisement policy. Another component of this media research is gain an understanding of how consumers respond to popular media with regard to their dietary and health choices.
Media is a powerful, persuasive, and pervasive teacher and can influence perceptions, knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors. Thus, health professionals need to be aware of the health-related information content of media and its effect media users. My research team investigates a variety of media, including print, video, and web forms, with regard to messaging related to diet, health, and body image.
"Foodborne illness caused by microbial pathogens remains a significant public health problem in the 21st century." My research team has investigated the obstacles to adopting safe food handling habits, including food safety knowledge and factors affecting attitudes and behaviors, of those groups likely to mishandle food. Our findings have provided essential information needed to understand the needs and motivations of these consumers and develop new, more effective, audience-specific food safety education programs that help consumers adopt behaviors and attitudes that protect themselves and those for whom they serve as caregivers.
Food Safety Outreach
"Food allergies are a common, serious--and sometimes fatal—problem." Although safe food handling can help prevent triggering a food allergic reaction, evidence-based educational materials for safe food handling for food allergies remain scarce. My work with food allergies has centered on elucidating the food handling behaviors regarding allergen cross-contact that are practiced by consumers, childcare givers, and retail food establishments, creating responsive educational materials and interventions for consumers and health-care providers, and working to set policy with regard to food allergy prevention.