I attended the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior Annual Conference in Washington DC July 13-17. This is a brief summary about the conference in general and the main themes that stuck with me, even two months after the conference. The summary of the conference proceedings and many of the presentations are available here.
As a sidenote: it’s somewhat embarrassing how it’s taken me ages to get this done. Reuniting with my significant other and having a summer vacation right after the conference was wonderful, but it caused this to get stuck midway in the priority pile. Still, better late than never.
Almost 600 people participated in the conference this year, making the attendance the highest in the past ten years. I might be biased, but I’m inclined to think that one of the reasons was the current president, no other than Brian Wansink. He has the skill to breathe energy and enthusiasm into anything he touches. And based on the talks I had with various conference attendees, the research that Food & Brand Lab does is generally considered not only quirky, but very interesting, original and practically useful as well.
Interest in practical usefulness was apparent in the audience demographics: in addition to researchers, a lot of dieticians, cooperative extension people, and health promotion program planners were present. Exhibition booths included potato and wheat promoters, developers of engaging educational materials, cancer researchers and so on.
All in all, everyone’s focus was on practical and actionable things in nutrition education and behavior change. The overall theme of the conference was synergy, which encouraged people to find ways to collaborate and benefit from each other’s expertise. I think that the most inspiring thing for me was just talking with all sorts of people and feeling the empathy, enthusiasm, and the drive to learn and to make real changes. Feeling that others genuinely cared about people’s well-being and wanted to make a difference.
Building partnerships was the focus of several sessions and talks. Not only partnerships between researchers and health professionals, but engaging the entire community: universities, schools, community organizations; researchers, students, activists, educators, parents, farmers, daycare centers, chefs, churches… the list goes on. Two centers, one from west and one from east coast, presented their visions and modes of operation.
- Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion bridges disciplines to help people eat healthier and be more active.
- Center for Health & Risk Communication works with communities to promote health and social justice.
Both centers started by collecting the resources that were already available and expanded from that. They develop, implement, and evaluate health promoting services, using a lot of students to do the practical work. This is great for everyone: students get practical experience and a taste for civic engagement, researchers are able to focus on coordinating and evaluating, and community members are approached from many directions.
I participated in an exercise to create a network of partners in local community to achieve the objective of a given project. We were encouraged to think outside the box to identify organizations and companies that could be involved, such as grocery stores, environmental activists and so on.
It would be really great to get students more involved in Finland as well, to create actual health promotion projects. Small-scale, of course (at least at first), but it would have been awesome to do something real instead of just writing essays when I was a student.
Simple and cheap
One of the recurring themes was the need for simple and cheap tools to promote healthy choices, as well as the need for healthy choices themselves to be simple and cheap. The first person to talk about this was Sam Kass, the White House chef and advisor in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, which has the goal to reverse childhood obesity. One of the aims is to give parents easy, understandable tools that help them make healthy choices for their kids.
Another example that stuck in my mind was Leon T. Andrews’ “Healthy Cities for a Healthy Future” talk where he showed a series of pictures of a gradual transformation of a cross-section in a city: starting from a barren scene with no sidewalks or biking lanes, ending with a charming pedestrian-friendly cross-section with trees, flower beds, wide sidewalks, crosswalks, clear traffic signs and an entire street devoted to pedestrians. The point was that not everything has to be done at once, it can start from just adding a crosswalk and pedestrian traffic lights, and slowly become so that the entire environment encourages walking and biking instead of driving.
Besides, it makes sense to keep children active and give them nutritious food.
- Healthy kids = better students
- Better students = healthy communities
- Healthy communities = healthy future
The advantages of synergy and partnerships are clear from this perspective as well: what is simple and cheap for one person can be very difficult and expensive for another. That’s why it is crucially important to find the right person to work with. Sharing tips, tricks, experiences, and best practices is equally important. That’s really what education is also about. Technology can help a lot if it’s done right for the target group’s needs and fits into existing routines reasonably well.
Leon T. Andrews is from ChangeLab Solutions, who have collected lots of tools and policies on their website. For example, they have a toolkit for advocates who want to work with city planners to create healthier cities. Maybe something like this could be made more interactive to make it easier for ordinary people to figure out some basic things they could also do to help a little?
I met several other international participants in an evening reception and in the International Division meeting. No one else from Europe, though. There was a wonderful woman from Argentina who had started her own initiative to develop educational materials and programs for schools to promote healthier eating and physical activity. She was extremely interested in how to leverage technology to lessen the need for people to travel around teaching, but the problem in Argentina is that schools don’t usually have Internet connections or computers for children. We came to a conclusion that the best way to start would be to develop a DVD for those schools which at least have computers on-site.
Other interesting perspectives included an energetic South Korean woman’s story of the country’s journey of advancing from malnourishment and poverty after the Korean war to being the 11th strongest economy in the world, and a woman from New Zealand who was doing her PhD in food literacy and how to measure it. Food policies in different countries and the sustainability of the entire food systems were also discussed critically.
And I just love hearing different accents from around the world!
Talking about weight
Rebecca Puhl from Yale Rudd Center and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer from University of Minnesota made compelling cases against dieting and weight stigma. Puhl presented research results that demonstrated how obese children are 63% more likely to be bullied, largely because overweight characters are always portrayed in a negative way in children’s media. It’s an awfully big problem because weight-based teasing easily leads to social isolation, lower performance at school, depression or anxiety, and less physical activity. Also, teachers and parents look at obese children more negatively. All this obviously results in increased emotional eating, which makes the original problem worse, which leads into more emotional eating and… you get the picture.
Neumark-Sztainer talked about dieting in adolescence and presented findings from longitudinal studies which showed that dieting predicted binge eating. Stopping a diet was not associated with greater weight gain than persistent dieting. So, diets don’t really work. Instead, I think that helping people form new small habits is the way to go. Figure out what the person can do and how s/he could do it.
We need to be able to communicate with anyone in a sensitive, respectful manner. Health at Every Size approach makes a lot of sense, especially since exercise really should be fun, stress-relieving, energizing activity instead of a dreary obligation.
My posters & technology
I presented two posters about predictors of adherence and water intake advice. Dieticians were more interested in water, researchers more in adherence. I discussed the importance of self-efficacy and mental well-being with a couple of people and got a reference to Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence approach, which focuses on two aspects in healthy eating, which make a lot of sense:
- The permission to choose enjoyable food and eat it in satisfying amounts.
- The discipline to have regular and reliable meals and snacks and to pay attention when eating them.
Technology had a relatively small role amidst policies, education programs, partnerships and environmental influences. That is perfectly fine, I think. Nevertheless, a couple of posters focused on mobile applications and tablet games aimed for children. There was also a session about enhancing your presence in social media – how to best use Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs. It seems to be pretty essential nowadays to have social media presence, but sometimes I wonder how fragmented our time (at least mine) becomes when we start following all these things.
It was so hot that I couldn’t really spend a lot of time outside without melting into a puddle. Nevertheless, we managed to get some walks in. The main attraction nearby was the National Zoo, which held animals from almost all parts of the world. Still, it just doesn’t feel quite right to keep living things imprisoned, even though giant pandas would probably be extinct without zoos by now. What affected me the most was seeing gorillas that were munching on snacks looking bored, orangutans trying to make their beds more comfortable by fluffing up the pile of hay, and other primates leading quiet family lives. Those guys looked just like humans, and I wondered why I was on this side of the bars and they on the other side.
We also went to see an eating disorder play called “Breaking Up With ED” with a colleague. ED is this nasty fellow who barges in uninvited and generally makes everyone miserable. The play was touching and funny, with monologues from various different characters, either suffering from eating disorders themselves or watching someone else’s suffering.
Next year’s conference will be held in Portland, Oregon, the healthiest and greenest city in the United States. Apparently, the founders of Portland were cunning fellows who wanted to attract more businesses, so they decided to make downtown blocks only half of the length of standard city blocks. As a result, the city is very pedestrian-friendly.