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Carolyn Gunther, PhD
Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition
Human Nutrition
Human Sciences
College of Education and Human Ecology
The Ohio State University
Interests:

Community nutrition
Childhood obesity prevention
Public health nutrition
Calcium intake in adolescents and young adults

Research: Eating behaviors that fuel development of obesity appear to be established early in life and become difficult to change thereafter. We also know that parents play a major role in shaping food choices and eating behaviors of their children (e.g., role modeling, setting expectations, making healthy foods available). Thus, in order to reverse current trends in childhood obesity, early intervention and engagement of parents are essential.

The primary focus of my research program centers on developing and implementing community-based, family nutrition interventions to improve the food choices and eating behaviors of young children, and ultimately to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity. Our team has developed and is actively pilot testing a blended nutrition education and cooking program for low income parents and young children designed to teach parents and their preschool children positive eating behaviors.

Our program is:

  • based on existing curricula
  • aligned with national dietary guidelines
  • designed with sensitivity to the needs of parents with young children
  • and delivered in the daycare setting.

The curriculum consists of ten 90 min sessions that include:

  • nutrition education
  • family meal preparation
  • group meal
  • take-home educational materials
  • and session evaluation.

We demonstrated high program feasibility/acceptability and modest improvements in certain diet outcomes (e.g., child skills in food preparation, child diet quality, and parent self-efficacy in establishing healthy eating behaviors in the home) resulting from program participation. We expect results generated from these studies to lead to the design of a larger scale randomized controlled trial in daycares to test program efficacy in executing positive food choices and eating behaviors.

It is estimated that milk and dairy products account for the majority (>70%) of dietary calcium intake in the U.S. Dairy products are naturally high in calcium and the vast majority of milk products are also fortified with vitamin D, a micronutrient that is critical for optimizing calcium absorption. Thus, milk and dairy products are important food and beverage sources of calcium.

It is well established that dietary calcium is critical for preventing disease and promoting optimal health. Achieving an adequate level of dietary calcium during adolescence and young adulthood is essential for reaching peak bone mass and reducing the risk for osteoporotic fracture later in life. Calcium and/or dairy products may also play a role in modulating a healthy body weight. It is estimated that only 42.8% of men and 37.6% of women nineteen years of age and older meet the RDA of 1,000 mg for calcium intake.

Results from a recent longitudinal study demonstrated that during the transition from late adolescence to young adulthood, dairy and calcium intake decrease in both men and women. This observed decrease in dairy/calcium intake may be explained in part by the life transition that is occurring during this timeframe (e.g., departure from home to college), which has been shown to have a negative impact on overall diet quality of young adults. In many college students, habits shift from consuming healthy foods once readily available in the home to easily accessed, nutrient poor, energy dense convenience foods offered on campus.

Such findings suggest a need for dietary interventions in college students designed to increase availability of calcium rich foods and beverages - especially considering that dietary patterns established during this critical life transition may have a detrimental impact on life-long dietary practices and health.

Our research group is studying practical and effective methods to improve milk, dairy, and calcium intake in college students, a nutritionally at-risk population. We are conducting the second phase of an on-campus study to determine the effectiveness of increasing availability and accessibility of milk-based beverages via milk vending machines on students' milk/calcium intake. Coupled to this effort, we are also collaborating with communications, marketing, and social media experts to design, implement, and test effectiveness of an on-campus health campaign to improve milk, dairy, and calcium intake in college students. We expect results from these studies to inform design of best practices to improve calcium intake and overall diet quality in students on Ohio State's campus and other college campuses in Ohio, and eventually nationwide.