When parents share meals or talk with children about food — whether they know it or not — they may be communicating in a way that leads to poor eating habits and obesity. As a result, educational initiatives in health care and research work to address pediatric obesity by focusing on communication strategies for parents to promote healthier eating habits in their children.

This summer, Sedona Whitmore of Richmond, Virginia, hopes to aid these initiatives by developing a coding system that zeroes in on how parents talk to their children about food as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

Working with Julie Dunsmore, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Science, Whitmore reviews transcripts of parents and children talking about their favorite meals, picking a snack, and discussing the last time they made a healthy decision. In particular, she is looking for subject-verb phrases in order to label them as entity statements, which characterize food, activity, or people as unchangeable, or incremental statements, which relate to building – in increments – toward a changeable condition, like maintaining a healthy body weight.

“If the statement relates to the child’s entity, then it might be something like, ‘I eat goldfish because I always eat goldfish.’ It’s like a fact about them,” said Whitmore, a senior majoring in psychology in the College of Science.

Along with Gabriela Blanquiz, of Williamsburg, Virginia, also a senior psychology major, Whitmore adds another dimension to this labeling by looking at the parent and child’s favorite meals.  To do this, they identify the choices and statements as context or content based.

“A lot of children say, ‘I like it because it’s tasty’ or ‘I like it because it has cheese.’ This would be content based,” said Whitmore. “If it’s content based, we then look at whether the choice was healthy or unhealthy.”

On the other hand, Whitmore explained, context refers to the situation surrounding the meal, such as a holiday or sharing personal time while preparing food.

“This has been interesting to see, because if parents speak in more incremental statements, do their children?” asked Whitmore. “Does it matter for the children how the parents speak? And, are the children making healthier decisions if the parents speak in more incremental statements? Maybe [knowing this] will help them realize they can make healthier decisions.”

Research team meets
Sedona Whitmore (left) and Gabby Blanquiz (right), both psychology majors in the College of Science, work with Julie Dunsmore, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Social Development Lab in Williams Hall.

The parents and children who participated in this study include English-speaking and Spanish-speaking families from Southwest Virginia and Winston Salem, North Carolina. As such, an additional point of interest for Whitmore and Dunsmore, who directs the Social Development Lab at Virginia Tech, is how the cultural values surrounding food relate to the role of relationship and family in decision-making and in the development of self across cultures.

“I’m really interested in developmental processes, and even more I want to go into psychopathology and how certain temperaments and predispositions affect children in terms of their environment and their biological makeup,” said Whitmore, who has now been researching social development with Dunsmore for more than a year and wants to pursue graduate school in the field. “I want to know how these things affect what happens in children’s lives when they’re older, such as having depression or anxiety. This is what I want to focus on in my future studies.”

Dunsmore currently collaborates on this project with Madlyn Frisard, a research assistant professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, and Joseph Skelton, a medical doctor and associate professor of pediatrics and gastroenterology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Skelton runs Brenner FIT, a program that treats families and children with obesity through Brenner’s Children’s Hospital. The program reaches families with children ages 8 to 18 who have been referred by a physician. It also takes a holistic approach to treatment, involving physicians, family counselors, dieticians, social workers, and physical therapists, as well as family members.

“Joey, Madlyn, and I would like to develop an intervention so that parents can talk about these decisions and how they may have an impact on their children’s choices,” Dunsmore said. “So if we can change the way parents talk, then we might get children at a prime time when they can develop a mindset that is more adaptive for them in the future.”

Whitmore will present her latest findings along with other students in multiple programs around campus at the 2017 Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on July 27 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Goodwin Hall, located at 635 Prices Fork Road. Presentations are in poster format, and each program will nominate one exemplary student or project group to give an oral presentation. The community is welcome to attend.

The Office of Undergraduate Research organizes the summer symposium with support from the Fralin Life Science Institute, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the Office for Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

Written by Cassandra Hockman.

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