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Tufts receives NIH grant to study obesity prevention in new immigrants

BOSTON ─ (January 15, 2009) Tufts University has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to design an obesity prevention program for new immigrants. Led by Principal Investigator Christina D. Economos, PhD, the clinical trial will randomize more than 400 mothers and their elementary school age children living in Somerville, Mass., and follow them for two years.

"A previous Tufts research initiative, Shape-Up Somerville, engaged local government, schools, community-based organizations, and families, and showed us that a community approach to a healthy lifestyle is effective," Economos said. "In partnership with Somerville-based agencies serving Haitian, Brazilian and Latin American immigrants, we will design and test an intervention that will teach people unfamiliar with the American diet and lifestyle about choosing healthy foods and exercising regularly while maintaining their cultural preferences. To our knowledge, this would be the first clinical trial on obesity prevention in new immigrants."

The four-year, $2.3 million grant is from NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development. In addition to Economos, assistant professor and New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the grant includes co-investigators David M.Gute, MPH, PhD, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts School of Engineering, Aviva Must, PhD, professor and chair of the department of public health and family medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM), Raymond R. Hyatt, Jr., PhD, assistant professor in the department of public health and family medicine at TUSM, Elizabeth Goodman, MD, director of the Childhood and Adolescent Obesity Center at Tufts Medical Center and professor at TUSM and the Friedman School, and Alex Pirie, coordinator of the Immigrant Service Providers Group/Health (ISPG/H) in Somerville.

The co-investigators will work alongside community partners the ISPG/H, the Welcome Project, the Haitian Coalition, the Brazilian Women's Group and the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS). As coordinator of the ISPG/H, Pirie sees new immigrants struggle with food choices and fall into sedentary lifestyles. "When people arrive in the United States, they are overwhelmed with finding housing, jobs and adequate healthcare," said Pirie. "Diet and home country nutritional practices tend to fade into the background in favor of more pressing needs."

"Due to the stress, people resort to convenience foods with considerably higher calorie and fat content compared to foods they consumed in their native countries," Economos added. "There are a number of studies that show immigrants have a greatly increased tendency to become obese after they arrive in the United States, particularly during the first seven years."

Based on those findings, the clinical trial will enroll more than 400 pairs of mothers and elementary school aged children who have lived in the United States less than five years. The goal is to reduce or moderate weight gain in both the adult and child participants. In the mothers' group, researchers will focus on weight loss and maintenance, while the child participants mainly will work toward preventing undesirable weight gain. Relationships to specific elements of the built environment- such as proximity to open space and density of food outlets- which support physical activity and access to healthy foods will also be assessed.

"A program focused on obesity prevention has the potential to help curb the burgeoning cost to the healthcare system," Economos said. "People who weigh less are at lower risk of developing chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes."

The clinical trial is a product of ongoing community-based participatory research in Somerville's immigrant community. Co-investigator and epidemiologist Gute is already working with the ISPG/H, the Haitian Coalition and the Brazilian Women's Group, among other Somerville organizations, on a research initiative to advance understanding of occupational health risks faced by immigrant workers.

"Like our occupational health work, the new grant to study obesity addresses a key concern identified by Somerville's immigrant population and includes the participants in the design, recruitment and execution of the clinical trial," Gute said. "By actively involving the community, they will have the knowledge to build on this groundwork in the years to come."


Contact: Andrea Grossman
Tufts University, Health Sciences

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