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UNF nutrition students educate public about diabetes


Patrons of Jacksonville’s Dunn Avenue Winn-Dixie store may have dropped by to pick up a few groceries Feb. 19, but they ended up getting a lot more than just a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. They took home valuable information on preventing and managing diabetes and preparing healthy food — as well as a pedometer to encourage them to walk their way to a healthier lifestyle. 


The advice and freebies were provided by a group of University of North Florida students in the Brooks College of Health’s Master of Science in Nutrition (MSH) program who conducted two in-store diabetes health fairs as a community outreach service to the public. The health fairs were designed to promote health and diabetes literacy in high-risk populations. 


Shoppers received free diabetes screenings, body-fat analysis, diabetes risk assessment, weight-control education and counseling, store tours and healthy-food demonstrations and samples. 


About half of the program’s 15 dietetic interns participated in the Dunn Avenue location’s health fair, while half conducted a fair the next week at the University Boulevard Winn-Dixie. Both stores were selected because their shoppers represent multiple income levels and health risks. 


Students enrolled in UNF’s highly competitive MSH dietetic internship program must complete 41 credit hours of graduate-level coursework and 1,200 internship hours in four semesters. Getting out into the community to teach people how to eat right and stay healthy is just one piece of the puzzle. 


“It’s critical for students to educate the public about health-care issues and nutrition, especially considering the public-health issues we deal with,” said Dr. Catherine Christie, chair of UNF’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics and graduate program director. “The No. 1 killer is heart disease. If you look at high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer, diet is one of the major risk factors, so education is critical in addition to behavior change.” 


The focus of the health fairs was educating the public about Type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease marked by high levels of blood glucose and associated with heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and other complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 23.6 million Americans suffer from the disease, which can be delayed and effectively managed through proper nutrition and regular exercise. 


At the Dunn Avenue Winn-Dixie, dietetic intern Jennifer Martinez staffed a table with visual displays designed to attract passersby, including a yellow, globular chunk of rubber simulating a pound of body fat. She also demonstrated correct food portion sizes. “A deck of playing cards equals about three ounces of meat,” Martinez said, “while a woman’s closed fist is the same size as a half cup of food.” 


In America, everything is oversized when it comes to food portions, Martinez said. “It’s all about super-sizing or biggie-sizing their meals. People need to account for the extra calories and fat that comes from adding those extra portions to their meals – and they need to know the health risks of doing so.” 


Students conducted diabetes and pre-diabetes risk assessments by asking participants a series of questions about their weight, height, physical activity level and family history of high blood pressure and diabetes. Those assessed as being high-risk for developing diabetes were invited on an educational tour of the store. 


“We’re taking customers through the different departments to show there are healthy options in every area and they shouldn’t limit themselves to one type of food,” said intern Lara Clevenger. “We want to give them as much knowledge as possible without overwhelming them so they have something to take home with them.” 


Lauren Lange, who plans to become a clinical dietitian when she and her cohorts complete the program in December, said participants really enjoyed the tours. “We stress the importance of fiber and how it makes you feel full and has the added benefit of preventing spikes in your blood sugar,” she said. “We also discuss the difference between starchy and non-starchy vegetables, various fruits, identifying foods that affect blood sugar, as well as lean meats, portion control and other important things that help control diabetes.” 


According to Dr. Lauri Wright, director of UNF’s MSH dietetic internship program, conducting health fairs in grocery stores is a great way to educate people in a non-intimidating setting where they’re more likely to respond to students’ efforts. In a supermarket, students are surrounded by hundreds of food labels and hands-on materials to engage participants – and because everyone needs to shop for groceries, people from all walks of life participate, including those who are uninsured or unaware of health risks associated with diet.   


“By going into varied-income, high-health-risk neighborhoods, we’re able to talk with people who don’t always have access to health-care counseling, those with a higher risk of developing diabetes,” Wright said. “Poverty is associated with obesity, which is a direct risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, so we need to reach all people in need.”  


When shopper Jennie James finished the store tour, she gave the UNF interns high marks on teaching her what she needs to know to manage her Type 2 diabetes. “I learned about eating high-fiber bread and where to shop for food that’s really good for you,” she said. “The information I learned here today was excellent.” She especially enjoyed the treat she received at the end of the tour, a healthy turkey-and-apple Panini prepared by intern Rachel McCandless.  


“Part of my job is to show people that just because the food is healthy doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good,” said McCandless, adding that she couldn’t make the samples fast enough to keep up with the demand. 


The Winn-Dixie health fairs were made possible by a $9,000 grant from the Aetna Foundation, the charitable arm of Aetna Inc. The funding covered the fairs’ costs, including educational materials, testing supplies, pedometers, food for demonstrations and T-shirts. 


“The Aetna Foundation has found that the Nutrition and Dietetics Department at UNF has been innovative in reaching out and educating the public,” said Tom Nasby, market head of Aetna Network Management. “We believe that by taking the concept of providing health fairs in local grocery stores for people in our community with Type 2 diabetes, the department will once again be successful in achieving its goals.” 


Dr. Pamela Chally, dean of the Brooks College of Health, said, “Aetna’s support of our Nutrition and Dietetics Department means a great deal to me, our faculty and our students. The opportunity for students to interact with the community and offer diabetes screenings falls directly in line with our mission. These health fairs are another example of community-based transformational learning, which is a hallmark of UNF.” 


The success of the health fairs is gauged not only by the 150-plus participants’ reactions and outcomes-based responses when surveyed, but also by the quality of learning experience provided to students. 


“One area of success is just having the opportunity to put our students in non-traditional venues where people make their day-to-day decisions about what they’re going to eat and what they’re going to serve their families,” Christie said. “The whole idea of the graduate program is to develop these students into quality health-care professionals who are going to make a difference in the community, and this is one creative way to do that.” 


In hospitals, interns provide nutrition therapy to individual patients, said Wright. “In community programs such as this, they are able to help entire communities,” she said. ”This is a transformational experience to apply their knowledge of nutrition and food to help improve the health of entire groups.” 


The UNF Department of Nutrition and Dietetics is made up of eight full-time faculty and several adjuncts who teach 215 undergraduate students and 40 graduate students. The MSH dietetic internship program is designed for graduate students who wish to become registered dietitians. Another five to 10 graduate students already certified as registered dietitians complete either thesis-based or non-thesis-based programs, depending on their career goals.