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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI researcher to test “non-dieting” approach to reducing weight gain among young adults

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

$1.1 million USDA grant targets weight gain that occurs in early 20s

KINGSTON, R.I. -- January 5, 2005 -- When young adults move away from home for the first time, they are often responsible for their own food preparation for the first time. It’s also when they find increased demands on their time, an increased frequency of eating out, and a decrease in physical activity.

The transition also results in a decade of the most rapid weight gain of any period in their lives.

So Geoffrey Greene, a professor of nutrition at the University of Rhode Island, and colleagues in eight states are developing a web-based intervention designed to provide young adults with the skills to resist this weight gain.

Thanks to a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the researchers are testing a “non-dieting” approach that has proven effective with middle-aged, overweight women but is untested on young adults.

“What we’re creating is a lifestyle intervention that focuses on encouraging people to become aware of their hunger and satiety (full-ness) so they can practice ‘in-tune’ eating,” Greene said. “We want people to be aware of their internal signals and eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. It’s essentially what we all did as pre-schoolers before we were told by our parents to eat everything on our plate.”

The program will encourage participants to keep track of how hungry they are during the day so they become more aware of their feelings of hunger.

“It’s mindful eating,” Greene explained. “When we eat, we should pay attention to the tastes, the smells, the eating environment, and enjoy eating. A lot of what we do instead is not mindful at all – we eat quickly in the car and don’t pay attention to it.”

Greene says that dieting should be avoided because of the psychological cost it incurs. “The process of restraining ourselves – eating too little or depriving ourselves – creates pressure to overeat when we go off the diet,” said the Narragansett resident. “By not dieting we remove that pressure and we stop the unhealthy yo-yo effect of frequent weight gain and loss that happens when we go on a diet and then go off it.

“An important component of this approach is that we must pay attention to our eating.”

The four-year research project will involve 2,000 students at URI and universities in Alabama, Maine, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The researchers will begin by conducting focus groups with students to determine what kind of interventions will be effective with the young adult audience.

“Young men are not prone to dieting, yet they still have the risk of weight gain in their 20s,” Greene said. “So we need to figure out what they perceive will be useful interventions.”

The program will include a physical activity component that is designed to get participants to engage in activity they can sustain once they leave college.

“That’s a woefully under-researched subject,” said Greene. “Most interventions designed to increase physical activity are specific to a particular location – a park, a fitness center. Very few are home-based that participants can do on their own, and none are transferable to other locations they may move to in the future.”

If the on-line program is successful, Greene said it could ultimately be incorporated into school curricula or used by anyone with a computer.