University of Vermont

Research at The University of Vermont

3 Questions: Getting to the Roots of Childhood Obesity


Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., has made a career of researching the science behind childhood obesity — with 101 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals, 12 book chapters, and funded grants and contracts totaling nearly $3.5 million. Thanks to her authoritative research credentials and knack for communicating clearly, Johnson has become a go-to national public health advocate for groups like the American Heart Association (AHA), whose nutrition committee she chairs. Most recently, she has worked with NBC News to develop the nutrition content for the network's new website, Parent Toolkit.

Q: With new USDA guidelines requiring kids to take fruits and vegetables at school lunch, you've been working on innovative research to evaluate what's actually being consumed. Can you talk about that?

A:There are amazing interventions to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables — farm-to-school programs, school gardens — so we're interested in accurately measuring what they're eating. My lab has developed state-of-the-art digital imaging so that we can go into cafeterias and measure what's on kids' trays when they leave the lunch line and again before they throw their food out. Our method is accurate within two grams, about the weight of one pea pod. We have about 20 undergraduates who we train to do the imaging and coding. There's been a lot of interest. When I look ahead I would love for our lab to become the go-to place in the country to help evaluate the efficacy of these interventions.

Q: You were first author on a major scientific statement for the AHA calling attention to the link between added sugars and cardiovascular disease. What has been the impact of that?

A: It's been huge. The AHA said that most of their scientific statements get about 28 million media hits and for this paper it was more than 60 million. It was instrumental in changing some of the guidelines that the AHA was using for the Heart-Check Food and Meal Certification Programs (on packaging and menus) because they didn't have an added sugars guideline before. Now there are limits on the amount of added sugars that can be in certain foods.

Q: You've played a significant role in identifying a major source of excess calories for kids. Where do you think the country's been and where is it going in terms of pediatric obesity?

A: Between 1940 and the 1990s the curve makes a big X with soft drink consumption going up and milk consumption going down. So I started looking at children's beverage consumption patterns and how that impacted their overall diet quality. We were one of the first to show that when kids don't have milk at lunch they don't come close to meeting their dietary needs — and the beverages displacing milk add empty calories. Now there's a bright light at the end of the tunnel on childhood obesity, we've seen some slight reductions in places that have been aggressive about making changes. It's a lot of policy changes — we've worked on education policy changes and physical activity standards. There are going to be new regulations in schools about limiting food marketing to kids, and about using food for fundraisers. I think we're going to see a new world in the next ten to fifteen years that's going to blow us away when we look back. At my kids' high school there were banks of vending machines with soft drinks and candy and snack foods, and all the bake sales. It was just crazy. It's going to seem like the days when people smoked in their offices when we look back. It's just not cool.

Last modified May 15 2014 12:19 PM