By Jon Parham
Whether it’s nutrition education lessons for elementary schools, health assessments for preschoolers, or counseling patients on weight loss, faculty and students in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition at UAMS are engaged in their community.
For students, the work is sometimes tied to academic requirements for a research project or to gain work experience. Community work also connects students to what many will do following graduation through jobs in schools, health care facilities or other workplaces that need nutrition education.
“It’s what we do,” said Lori Maddox, a registered dietitian and instructor in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition in the UAMS College of Health Professions. “Working in the community gives students hands-on experience, witnessing the obesity problem firsthand.”
The department has had a long partnership with the UAMS Head Start preschool program. For 11 years, the dietetic interns have conducted height and weight assessments of 1,000 Head Start students twice a year.
Working with the Head Start program’s full-time dietitian, the interns gather the data then calculate the body mass index (BMI) for each child.
The preliminary data from those 11 years shows that much like Arkansas and the rest of the nation, a significant number of Head Start students fall into the overweight or obese categories, said Tina Crook, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and an assistant professor in the department. Armed with the BMI measurements, the interns then work with the Head Start dietitian on nutrition education materials for parents.
“In many cases, the parents are overweight or obese too, so we want to talk to them and offer nutrition education or support,” said Reza Hakkak, Ph.D., department professor and chair.
The interns also get experience with nutrition counseling of patients in weight-loss programs like the UAMS Weight Loss and Metabolic Control program, the MOVE! Program in the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, and the Pediatric Fitness Clinic and WHAM! Program at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. The interns provide the counseling under supervision of each program’s dietitian.
In one-on-one sessions, the interns can offer guidance on healthy lifestyle changes to promote weight loss and improve overall health. Crook said the experience helps interns see how a structured weight-loss program is set up.
“Anyone who asks us to help, we will help,” Hakkak said. “Our faculty and interns have a passion for nutrition education, and working in schools and in these programs is a way that they can use their knowledge to help the community.”