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Professor awarded grant for work on obesity prevention

| Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Julie Braungart-Rieker, professor of psychology and director of the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families, has been awarded an Indiana Clinical and Translational Studies Institute (CTSI) grant for her new program “Undercover Mother,” a home intervention kit designed to study childhood obesity prevention tactics.

Braungart-Rieker said study focuses on parents’ behavior instead of children’s behavior.

“We’re not really so interested in what kids are eating, but rather what’s going on the home; how does the mother interact with the child, how’s the child’s behavioral functioning, all that kind of stuff,” she said.

Along with associate professor of marketing Elizabeth Moore, Braungart-Rieker has been studying how preschooler’s impulsivity levels can correlate to their body-mass index (BMI). 

“We published an article in 2014 that basically showed this sort of this cascading effect with mothers,” Braungart-Rieker said.

She said the study focused on the BMIs of low-income mothers and their children. Low income mothers are at higher risk for depressive symptoms and negative parenting strategies, such as being overly authoritarian or permissive. Braungart-Rieker says this negative parenting can be correlated to a preschooler’s high impulsivity levels, and her 2014 study took it a step further by linking impulsivity to food.

“Kids who are more impulsive scored higher on this measure called food approach, meaning they’re very motivated by food,” Braungart-Rieker said. “They like sweet drinks, they emotionally eat. … And in turn, of course, kids that are higher in food approach have higher BMIs.”

But Braungart-Rieker said just linking impulsivity with BMI wasn’t enough for her and Moore.

The new CTSI award will allow the researchers to further explore the question. According to the Institute’s website, the Community Health Engagement Program grant aims to “improve the health of Indiana residents through community-university partnerships.” At Notre Dame, that partnership connects University researchers and the community chapter of Head Start, a national program designed to help low income preschoolers become school-ready.

Braungart-Rieker said the partnership benefits the families and the researchers.

“Head start already has a well-oiled machine,” she said. “They make sure families are educated about lots of different things about child development, and they have these home visitors to help with any questions parents might have with their child. So if you already have a system that has that in place, why not give some extra material that could promote health?”

Braungart-Rieker said “extra material” is a carefully-planned home intervention designed by the research team, called “Undercover Mother.” Undercover Mother kits contain resources mothers use to make small adjustments in how their children eat.

“It’s based on this idea that if moms could sort of just quietly make some small changes in their home environment, it could help reduce what’s known as an obesogenic home environment,” she said.

She said an obesogenic environment is one that contributes to unhealthy living, such as having an abundance of junk food readily available.

According to the project description, Undercover Mother attempts to educate mothers about five small steps they can take to change how their children eat. For example, the kit contains recipe cards with sneaky ways to put vegetables into a child’s favorite foods, as well as smaller plates and cups to help control portion size.

“We may not be able to do a lot with controlling mothers’ depressive symptoms, but we may be able to work on the moms’ parenting, and that in turn might promote a more healthy food environment,” Braungart-Rieker said.

The success of the program will be determined using pre- and post-tests measuring the eating habits and behaviors of the participants. If the program is shown to be successful and effective, Braungart-Rieker intends to develop it even further.

“Our plan would be to then apply for a larger grant where we could implement [Undercover Mother] on a much larger scale, and also look at a lot more factors that could be contributing to why this program is really successful for some families but not as successful for other families,” she said. “And then the ultimate goal would be, if that was successful, that Head Start could take this on as a program.”

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