Eating and Weight-Management: A brief summary of collaborative and student-initiated Research Projects.
For the past 10 years students and collaborators working with us have carried out research projects aimed at understanding the risk factors for human eating disorders and obesity, mainly among children and adolescents. The goal of this work has been to shed light on environmental and developmental factors leading to eating problems, including binge eating, excessive dieting, and purging as well as disturbances of body-image and body weight, especially as these relate to obesity development. Our hope is that such work may ultimately lead to better understanding underlying mechanisms of these disturbances and to new proposals for early preventive interventions.
Funded Research Projects
Native American Eating and Weight-management Problems. This has been a major focus of much of our work and the topic of an NIMH R03 grant (2002-05). We completed the collection of data in a large survey study of kids in grades 5-10 in the Billings and Hardin, MT school districts. About 1/3 of the 2700 kids in this study were Native Americans. We assessed eating disorders risks using the McKnight Risk Factor Survey (MRSF-IV) and numerous other measures of eating disturbance, body weight, and physical activity. Several publications and presentations have resulted from this work (see below).
Childhood Obesity Prevention. In collaboration with Dr. Lynn Paul (MSU Health & Human Development) and Jill Martz (Director, Montana State 4-H Youth Development) our lab is currently in the second year of a 4-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA/USDA). The main goal of this work is to develop and test the effectiveness of a parent intervention to prevent the development of obesity among preteens. Thus far, we have completed a first year of program development and focus-group assessments and have begun a yearlong pilot study of the new program. In addition to the focus group data collected in year 1, we have collected a large battery of survey and physical measurements during the pre-intervention phase of the pilot study from both parents and their children. Following the 9-month intervention, post-intervention assessments will again be carried out and changes in behaviors, attitudes, and physical measures will be evaluated. In years 3 and 4, we will expand the intervention and the research to include participants from about 20 rural Montana counties.
The approach to student research in our lab has been distinctly different than in many labs. We believe that for students the purpose of doing research is to learn the entire research process from conception to completion. We also believe that students are most highly motivated and excited by research projects that grow from their own interests and hypotheses. Rather that designing projects for students that fit into an ongoing program, we prefer to offer merely the outline of problems areas for students and then let them have the experience of designing studies of their own. This, of course, does not always lead to successful results and many projects provide only preliminary data. Nevertheless, we feel that the experience of designing and carrying out their own research is the best training for bright students who plan to pursue professional careers in behavioral science. Thus, the following are some examples of student projects carried out in our lab.
Eating Problems among Native American Children. Our work on eating and weight management problems began about 10 years ago when several students, a colleague (Dr. Tim Kasser), and I decided to survey Montana students to see whether or not these, mostly rural, kids were having the same kinds of eating-related problems as their more urban peers. Two students in particular (Kristie Eppers-Reynolds and Janell Sherrod) took on task of contacting teachers across Montana, asking them to administer the Eating Attitudes Test (EAT-26) to their students. With the help of these teachers, this initial work led us to realize the magnitude of eating-related problems in rural MT children and provided the first suggestion that Native American children, a substantial proportion of this early sample, might be at particularly high risk for these problems.
Physical Activity and Eating Problems. Are physical activity and sports involvement protective against eating disorders and/or obesity developments? Several of my students have been interested in examining this question, including Jessica Klingler (Activity based anorexia in rat) and Lacy Mathews (Athletics and eating problems: analysis of existing data sets, including YRBS data). Their preliminary work provided the impetus for our NIMH R03 grant, described above. Activity data collected as part of that study indicated a slight protective effect of involvement in sports activities, such that both greater time-spent and greater relative energy-expenditure tended to reduce the likelihood of dieting and purging behaviors.
Native American Attitudes about Body Weight and Eating. Several students have also been interested in possible differences between Native and non-Native students in terms of their attitudes about obesity and eating disorders. Preliminary studies began with the work of Native American undergraduate Michelle Calftail (summer 2001) and the following year with a project carried out by Elizabeth Schwartz, Ben Harris, and Lashanda Hargrove. One goal was to characterize the language used by Native adolescents to talk about eating and weight management issues and to identify concerns about eating and weight-management issues that are unique to Native adolescents using focus group interviews. Mariam Stewart, another Native undergraduate (IMSD, 2004) developed a computerized implicit attitudes test (IAT) aimed at examining differences in attitudes towards obesity among Native and Caucasian youth.
Social Support and Eating Problems among Native Adolescents. Based on our preliminary data from the R03 project described above, Native undergraduate, Loren Chesarek, and Sydney Eastman began examining existing survey instruments designed to assess social support. After discussing this with Prof. Clarann Weinert (College of Nursing), Loren collected data from students on the Crow Indian reservation in SW Montana, using the Personal Resource Questionnaire, PRQ-2000, originally developed by Dr. Weinert to assess social support among older rural residents. Loren’s hypothesis was that lack of adequate social support among Native adolescents might exaggerate the risks for development of EDs and/or obesity. Loren was subsequently accepted into a clinical psychology program at North Dakota State University.
Stress and Eating Disorders. Several students have contributed to this project including Melannie Ehrlick, who surveyed the MSU track team, Rhea Papke who attempted to validate a “stress thermometer” as a visual analog instrument for the assessment of stress and Maria (Gilman) Hinton (2003), whose MS Thesis “Disturbed Eating Attitudes as Predictors of Coping Processes and Macronutrient Preferences in Undergraduate Females Under Stress,” was an experimental study in which stress was induced in college females (using an unsolvable anagram procedure) prior to their reporting their coping strategies. Maria also recorded eating attitudes and behaviors of these women and their macronutrient food preferences.
Food Insecurity. Does socioeconomic status influence eating and weight-management? Several students have been interested in this question. Andrea Church (2003) began investigating this problem and she developed a tentative model of possible mediators between food insecurity and obesity. Deb Rohm (2004) later wrote an excellent review of the literature in this area as a paper for Psy 470. Brett Carter (later an MS student) followed up by examining the Wellness in the Rockies database for relationships between socioeconomic status (family income or education) and obesity or disturbances in body image. Other databases with relevant information on this problem are the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS) and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). An interesting and as yet unanswered question is the extent to which socioeconomic status affects body weight and eating attitudes among rural Montanans. The YRBS data for MT youth may contain some relevant information on this question.
Night Eating Syndrome (NES). Another student, Barbara Cooper. became interested in determining the prevalence and controlling variables responsible for NES and related eating disorders. In 2007 she travelled to Beijing, China where she collected survey data on this question from college-age students. And in 2008 she received a MS degree from MSU before accepting a position in the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Gallaudet University in Washington DC. The results of her MS research will be reported at the 2011 meeting of the Academy for Eating Disorders.