Family & Consumer Sciences
Ag Science Building, Room 62
606 South Rayburn St
751 Campus Drive
Mary Hall "Niccolls" building
Main office room 103
875 Perimeter Dr. MS 3183
Moscow, ID 83844-3183
phone: (208) 885-6546
fax: (208) 885-5751
Agricultural & Life Sciences
University of Idaho
1031 N. Academic Way, Suite 242
Coeur d'Alene, ID 83814-2277
phone: (208) 667-2588
toll free: (888) 208-2268
fax: (208) 664-1272
Helping people understand nutrition provided a never-ending banquet of opportunities for Dr. Laurel Branen during her career as a professor in the University of Idaho's Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences.
"I've always felt that nutrition is the place to really help people improve their lives," Branen said.
Before joining the faculty, Branen earned a bachelor's degree in food science and then a master's in nutrition education. In addition to working for Moscow Family Medicine, she taught classes for a couple of years about eating disorders and nutrition. After completing her doctorate in education at the University of Idaho, she joined the faculty as a full-time teacher and researcher.
Much of her research has focused on feeding children in group settings with her colleague, Dr. Janice Fletcher, a professor of family and consumer sciences. That interest in how children choose what and how much to eat and how the choice is often made by adults formed a core in her academic pursuits from her earliest professional experiences.
That interest and her conviction that society needs to better understand eating habits and childhood nutrition coincided with an alarming trend toward more children becoming obese at younger ages. Parents kept children in strollers to get from one place to another quickly. The children lost out on the exercise of walking. At home, the children sit in front of the television, sometimes left in their car seats to ensure they can't get into trouble. Those are the realities that contribute to childhood obesity, Branen said, and have been her specific interest as a teacher and a researcher. She just finished a $1 million grant on childhood obesity.
Without active play, children don't develop the skills or the confidence to continue active lifestyles as they progress through their school years. "A problem with food constantly being accessible all of the time is children lose their sense of being full. They drink calories in fruit juices and eat too much. One of the biggest problems is adults don't know how much children actually need to eat," Branen said.
A toddler might only need a few tablespoons of food at a sitting, but needs to eat more frequently than adults. "The rule of thumb is one tablespoon of each food at a sitting per year of age." But importantly, it is just a rule of thumb. "Some toddlers will eat more and some will eat less. Too often people will think that a packaged child's meal is a serving. Adults need some guidance on how much children really need and responsive feeding." Instead, adults think children need more food at a sitting. "Eventually these children lose touch with their hunger and the fullness response," Branen said.
Babies demonstrate clearly the natural instincts that are present in most people. Branen said, "They cry when they're hungry and they cry if the adult tries to keep feeding them more than they want." As children grow older, however, the constant overfeeding eventually dulls their sense of fullness and sets in motion the habits that lead to obesity.
She champions the idea of responsive feeding, which honors those instincts by offering food and allowing them to decide when they're full. "Adults need some guidance about how much children really need. If we could get responsive feeding to become general practiced, we'd be a long way to getting a handle on obesity."
Most parents' focus on making sure they're continually pushing food at young children is with the best of intentions, Branen said. "They do it with really good intentions, the very best of intentions and if their child is thin they get a lot of pressure to keep doing it." Unfortunately, overfed children become obese, and as more children become obese, the rate of Type 2 diabetes rises. The health consequences of the chain reaction of overstuffing children are enormous. "Twenty years ago, I never would have expected we'd see the rate of child obesity that we're seeing now."
Branen served on a National Institute of Medicine committee that studied the subject. It is clear, she said, that something needs to be done and done quickly. In addition to educating parents, the country also has to look at its cities and people's access to quality foods.
There are food deserts, places where people just don't have access to fresh foods. Instead, particularly in low income, inner city neighborhoods, convenience stores offer the only places to shop. Fresh produce, vegetables and fruits are nearly impossible to find. "That's contributing as well to the growing obesity problem," she said.
And that brings it all back to nutrition educators waging the good fight to get people to think about their diets and promote changes that can help them do so," Branen said. "I do believe that dietitians will help people understand the importance of eating healthy foods and that ultimately it is cheaper to keep people healthy.
And ultimately, it is the students at the University of Idaho today who make her optimistic that will happen, Branen said. "After 20 years, it's the students who give me hope and who have kept me coming back. I'll miss the students a lot."Written by Bill Loftus, College of Agricultural & Life Sciences, Science Writer
Tiffani Zemmer Nalivka and Courtney Staszak each received a Master of Science in Family and Consumer Sciences in May. In their 2 years as graduate students, they gained a wide variety of experiences. Students leave the School with much more than classroom learning.
In addition to a variety of courses, some of Courtney’s and Tiffani’s experiences included:
Recipe development and assessment via sensory panels.
Working with a professional photographer to take food pictures for recipe cards.
Assisting in the shooting of a 2-minute video with a videographer and professional and amateur actors.
Survey of thermometer availability in 168 stores in WA and ID.
Using thermocouples and data recording software to evaluate accuracy of consumer thermometers.
Grocery store and in-home consumer interviews (Courtney photo above).
Participation in a 3-day training on using emotion based marketing to motivate consumer behaviors.
Development of marketing materials for consumers.
- Development of a website, “All About Thermometers,” www.uidaho.edu/thermometers.
Radio interview with Samatha Wright, news reporter with Boise State Radio NPR.
At least 40 meetings with a 9-member project team in two states, many of those meetings were held via video conference.
An article in Lean Trimmings Prime, http://nmaonline.org/pdf/LTPrime3.pdf.
Presentation at two professional meetings: International Association of Food Protection, Grapevine, TX, July 2009 and USDA-NSF 2010 Food Safety Education Conference, Atlanta, GA, March 2010.