NASHVILLE -Vanderbilt’s Department of Pediatrics, in partnership with Metro Nashville Parks and Recreation, has been awarded a $12 million, seven-year grant from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) for an ambitious project aimed at stopping obesity in preschoolers before it can take hold.
The project, entitled “Growing Right Onto Wellness (GROW): Changing Early Body Mass Index (BMI) Trajectories,” will bring 600 families to their neighborhood Metro Parks’ facilities and provide a curriculum specially designed to fit a variety of ethnic groups.
Shari Barkin, M.D., director of the Division of General Pediatrics and principal investigator of GROW, said selecting the toddler/preschooler age group and partnering with families is crucial.
“As a pediatrician, I can see it happening right in front of me. An overweight preschooler is four to five times more likely to stay overweight as an adolescent. And if you stay overweight as an adolescent, there is a 70 percent likelihood you will stay overweight as an adult,” Barkin said.
GROW builds on the success of another project entitled “Salud con la Familia” (Health with the Family). In that project, Barkin and colleagues formed a group, the Nashville Collaborative, with Metro Parks and Recreation that worked with 100 Latino families with toddlers to do what has been difficult to accomplish in the past: spur lasting lifestyle changes in families.
“This partnership, overall with Vanderbilt and with Dr. Barkin, has been the most successful effort to really get a handle on health issues that I have experienced in my 20 years serving in Metro Parks and Recreation,” said Paul Widman, assistant director of Metro Parks and Recreation.
Salud con la Familia generated evidence for six research publications now in the works. Barkin said the science indicates that a family-based intervention that takes place within community centers can successfully impact the growth trajectories in early childhood. Other research indicates that achieving healthy growth patterns at this age can last into adulthood.
While the Salud project focused on Latino families, GROW will recruit a much wider spectrum of families within Davidson County. It is hoped that several racial and ethnic backgrounds will be represented among the 600 families ultimately recruited.
“To create sustainable change in the community we have to have the perspectives of the communities with which we work,” Barkin explained.
Widman said he never anticipated this larger grant opportunity, but he is pleased to have the opportunity to learn from his academic neighbors while offering the invaluable resource of two dozen community centers and hundreds of programs.
“The whole thing has been really exciting. It has enhanced what we do,” Widman said.
As part of the Salud program, Metro gained bilingual materials and popular cooking programs originally designed for Latino families at the Coleman Recreation Center, the flagship site of the Nashville Collaborative. Now the GROW project will also provide funds, allowing participating recreation centers to extend their hours to all users.
“That means we will be able to offer more hours for employees or even hire new people,” Widman said.
Barkin said the success of this format: bringing academic institutions and community resources together, could create a model to be used all over the nation to make lasting health changes in the community.
Six Vanderbilt co-investigators will work on a variety of aspects of the GROW project.
• Russell Rothman, M.D., associate professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, will tailor the curriculum to fit a broad range of literacy and numeracy skills.
• Sabina Gesell, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Pediatrics, will build and measure new social networks of families enrolled in the study and examine the impact.
• Tom Morgan, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, will examine whether weight loss success is tied with participants’ genes.
• Matt Buchowski, Ph.D., director of the Energy Balance Laboratory, will find ways to measure energy expenditures in study participants.
• Heidi Silver, R.D. will focus on nutritional elements of the research.
• Warren Lambert, Ph.D., senior associate in Biostatistics, will handle data design and analysis for the project.