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Federal $1.4M grant will help fund childhood obesity research

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Dr. Michael Lehker

By Jennifer L. Berghom

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Mega Doctor News 

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will be working with two local school districts to teach students and their families about the importance of adopting healthy eating and exercise habits to combat obesity.

The UTRGV Department of Health and Human Performance in the College of Health Affairs received a three-year, $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health to research childhood obesity.  Faculty members in the department who are involved in the grant are:

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  • Roberto Treviño, adjunct professor
  • Zasha Romero, assistant professor
  • Lin Wang, associate dean, undergraduate programs and student success, and associate professor
  • Maria Trinidad, lecturer II

UTRGV faculty and students will work with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and La Joya school districts to study childhood obesity among pre-kindergarten to kindergarten students.

The grant, entitled “South Texas Early Prevention Study-Pre K” (STEPS), involves providing curriculum and other support to about 50 elementary schools in those districts.

University students and faculty will work with students, educators, food service staff, parent liaisons and parents to promote healthy lifestyles, and will collect data on the schools to track the program’s progress.

“It’s been the norm that health, physical fitness and nutrition have not been deemed as important as other subjects, but without healthy students, how can they succeed in other areas,” said Romero, who teaches in the Department of Health and Human Performance. “We want to catch them early, we want to plant these seeds early, we want to follow up with these students. And we know that at the end of this three-year period, we’re going to have healthier students, which in turn, will benefit the community.”

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UTRGV also will offer a summer program for school-age children where UTRGV students will teach them about fitness and nutrition, Romero said.

The faculty members chose to focus their research on preschool children because studies have shown that rapid fat cell growth can occur in children of that age group if they do not adopt regular healthy habits, such as eating healthy foods and exercising, Romero said.

“If you don’t start targeting children at that age, they develop a trigger that increases the number of fat cells growth at that early age,” he said. “We want start teaching them young to maintain a healthy lifestyle so it becomes the norm for them.”

UTRGV launched a month-long pilot program last spring at PSJA and a weeklong program at the La Joya school district, Romero said, and he and fellow faculty received positive feedback from parents.

“A lot of the parents would come back and say, ‘My child is coming home and teaching me things I didn’t know about health that I can implement in my house.’ That’s fantastic,” he said.

The long-term goal is to implement this program throughout the Rio Grande Valley, Romero said.

Dr. Michael Lehker, dean of the College of Health Affairs, said the grant furthers the college’s efforts to improve the Valley’s quality of life through education, research and community outreach.

“By working with educators and families, our faculty and students are building the relationships necessary to combat obesity and illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, that are associated with obesity, and improve the overall health and well-being of the Rio Grande Valley,” Lehker said.

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