CHHS News

Fighting Childhood Obesity in Local Latino Communities

Dr. Sina Gallo, a professor in CHHS’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, with George Mason colleagues Dr. Margaret Jones from Kinesiology and Dr. Robyn Mehlenbeck from Psychology, was recently awarded a one-year $117,468 grant from the Potomac Health Foundation through the 2017-2018 Howard L. Greenhouse Large Grant Opportunity. Gallo’s project, “VALÉ”: A Multidisciplinary Childhood Obesity Treatment Program for Latino Communities, will bring together a group of faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate student researchers across the fields of nutrition, psychology, and exercise science to help decrease obesity rates among Latino children.

As Gallo explains, “We are training students to work in an interdisciplinary environment to help solve a complicated health care problem, childhood obesity. In addition, we will be providing at risk children access to an evidence-based, culturally adapted and comprehensive weight management program, which will hopefully help families lead healthier lifestyles.”

Latinos are the fastest growing population in the United States and make up the largest minority group in the Potomac Health Foundation’s service area. Further, this group has emerged as one in need of community health-based outreach efforts, but programs that provide tailored care for Latinos are limited. Latinos experience food insecurity at more than double the typical rate, and Latino children are disproportionately affected by obesity. Thus, Latino children bear a double burden of health inequality, having higher risks for both food insecurity and obesity, in an already medically underserved population.

Gallo notes that there are short and long-term health effects of childhood obesity, which will impact future quality of life. Without adequate care, this will have significant economic implications for the U.S. as a country, and early investments in obesity treatment can save billions in lifetime medical costs. Unfortunately, comprehensive treatment programs, such as VALÉ, do not currently exist or are out of reach for many families in this area.

VALÉ will specifically serve low-income children and their families living in Manassas and surrounding areas of Prince William County. Children will be recruited through established community partners such as the Mason and Partners Clinics. The VALÉ program will be provided to 48 Latino families who have a child identified as obese (≥95th percentile age-based BMI). Selected families will meet, as a group, one evening per week over 10 consecutive weeks. As children engage in physical exercise, caregivers will participate in nutrition and behavioral health sessions in Spanish. Each session will end with families observing a nutritional cooking demonstration and eating a healthy meal while setting weekly goals. Spanish speaking OSCAR research assistants serve as interpreters as well as role models for the children and their families.

VALÉ continues work from a pilot program, A Multidisciplinary Community Empowerment Approach to Target the Early Treatment of Childhood Obesity among Low Income Latino Children, which was sponsored by George Mason University’s Office of the Provost as a 2016 Multidisciplinary Research Initiative. This initial funding allowed researchers to develop and test the program’s feasibility with 16 families in the spring of 2017. Preliminary results suggest positive changes in children’s weight as well as lifestyle behaviors over the course of the 10-week program.

Potomac Health Foundation Executive Director Susie Lee noted, “The Foundation is pleased to be partnering with George Mason University on the VALÉ project and is particularly impressed with how the project works closely with community members to design and implement the program in a culturally appropriate manner.”

Gallo’s team will begin recruiting families for VALÉ this summer and the program will begin the fall of 2017.