Electronic Evolution

Multi-disciplinary research team to reach military families with new anti-obesity website.

Many arms extended from out-of-frame using varied electronic devices.
A new smartphone-friendly healthful eating and living website designed with military members in mind will go online in 2016.

Sometimes, parents are too embarrassed to ask their doctors questions about their children’s health and nutrition, especially when they feel they should know the answer.

Texas Tech University Doctoral Student Ashlee Taylor.

In a moment of honesty, a parent who participated in the creation of a Texas Tech website to promote healthful eating in military families said those very words. They struck a particular chord with researchers, said Ashlee Taylor, a doctoral student involved with the Jump2Health project.

It seemed to underline the reason why she and others in the Department of Nutritional Sciences had created the anti-obesity website in the first place. It also reinforced why they were modifying the original planned website to help military families make better health choices overall.

Scientists assume childhood obesity rates are the same in military families as they are for civilian ones. However, as military families are deployed again and again, they often lack the family support systems other families have nearby. During conversations with military families, issues were raised that pointed Texas Tech researchers toward designing a military-focused website that provided the information these families needed in a format they could easily access.

Based on these undesirable levels of overweight and obesity in young children, it is important to provide parents with appropriate resources that will help them provide healthy environments for their children, Taylor said. However, nutrition education classes, newsletters or at-home activities showed little or no effect. We decided to go online to help families get the information they need, when and where it was convenient for them. Technology advances have made access to websites via smart phones and tablets available to parents all day, every day.

A table with four empty, metal food trays arranged neatly.
Because they move from base to base, military members often lack the support system of nearby family when it comes to meeting the goals for the seven healthy habits. Texas Tech researchers have tried to bridge the gap with Operation Jump2Health.

Taylor, who used the project as her thesis for her master’s degree and will continue monitoring its success for a doctoral dissertation, said the seven healthy habits include incorporating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, family mealtimes, and physical activities while decreasing sweet drinks and screen time, and getting the right amount of sleep.

It’s really hard to motivate people toward behavior changes in these areas, she said. There are so many barriers we can’t even control. For example, one parent might have a strict bedtime, but when the child goes to stay with the other parent, that strict bedtime goes away. Even just having family meals is difficult. Sometimes parents don’t know what to say to their kids. We even came up with conversation cards. People are so not used to having conversations with their children anymore. So we included cards to help them with these discussions.

Texas Tech University Helen DeVitt Jones Chair of Nutrition in the Department of Nutritional Sciences.

Debra Reed, the Helen DeVitt Jones Chair of Nutrition in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, has led a multidisciplinary team of TTU faculty, undergraduate and graduate students in nutrition, exercise science, child development, computer sciences, psychology, and hospitality/retail management in the development of the Jump2Health website.

Reed said the program started as an education website in 2012 to help parents of children enrolled in the Head Start Program at Lubbock Independent School District. The initial version of the website was tested with 300 Head Start parents. Head Start promotes the school readiness of preschool children from low-income families through programs on language, health and social development.

With regard to the Head Start study, we’ve had fascinating results, Reed said. One dad said he bought a mini-fridge and put fruits and veggies in it with a checklist. The kids checked off the fruits and veggies they ate. He really got it. He had the food at their level where it was accessible and the kids were reinforced by checking off what they ate on the list.

The military website redesign started last year with small group discussions of about 25 parents with children enrolled in childcare programs at Cannon Air Force Base in Hobbs, N.M., and Fort Bliss in El Paso. Parents with children enrolled in the base’s preschool programs weren’t as worried about meeting the nutritional needs of these children because they received healthy food choices and plenty of play time through the on-base childcare programs. They were more concerned about receiving this information for their older children as well as themselves and lacked the knowledge to do so.

A plate with two small pancakes and a small amount of sauce beneath them forming a "smiley" face.
Military members have BMI requirements they must meet to remain in service. Texas Tech researchers said they included positive body-image reinforcement not only to help military members but also for younger family members who may be hearing negative body image comments from their parent or parents.

They also discovered military service members would often severely restrict their food intake to meet weight goals set by the military, and this can cause body-image issues with younger family members. Researchers included information to help military members meet their goals without passing on poor body-image issues to their children.

We realized that military parents had all the same needs as the other parents who needed this, Reed said. Military parents face a lot of the same issues, but have an even harder time in some cases, especially with deployments. There are a lot of single parents, or single-parent situations because of deployment, even if they’re married.

Military families are often mixed, she said, meaning two divorced parents with children often marry and blend into one family. They also found that many families have teenagers and babies living under the same roof.

Later, in 2014, Reed said she got the idea to change the format from a conventional website to a mobile website to better help military parents acquire the same needed skills after discovering that the needs and problems of Head Start parents and military parents were much the same.

As researchers press forward to design a website that’s mobile friendly and easily accessed, they hope military families will find better ways to meet their children’s nutritional needs and battle obesity.

The site gives suggestions to achieving the seven healthy habits that have shown in the literature to have an association with curbing obesity, Taylor said. The website makes recommendations for achieving all habits. Developing all seven habits is a balancing act for all parents. But with military families, I won’t say it’s impossible, but it is very hard, especially when one is deployed and one is acting as a single parent.

Texas Tech University Professor of Computer Science Susan Mengle.

Susan Mengel, a professor of computer science at Texas Tech, said she got involved in the beginning and suggested some technology ideas to Reed and others, which the group liked.

It really is fun and rewarding to help others, she said. I helped by encouraging best practices for designing a smartphone-friendly website. I, as well as others have reviewed the web site several times. Being willing to iteratively improve the site over time is important so that the site does not become stale or of little use to the targeted audience. I think that Dr. Reed and the others on the project are very forward-thinking people who want to make a positive impact with nutrition and exercise.

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