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Making Obesity Research Count


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity.

Mary Story and her staff at the Healthy Eating Research program play a key role in the obesity prevention movement: finding the data that can help drive wellness-focused policy change.

Story has led Healthy Eating Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, since 2006. She is also a professor of global health and community and family medicine at Duke University and serves as associate director of education and training at Duke’s Global Health Institute. Before moving to Duke in 2014, she was based for more than 25 years at the University of Minnesota. Throughout her career, Story, who has a Ph.D. in nutrition science, has studied obesity prevention at the school and community levels.

“We’ve done a lot of research on what’s worked in schools,” Story notes. Among her interests, and those of Healthy Eating Research, are looking at ways to improve family nutrition, educate parents, improve school meals and reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. “There’s been quite a bit of progress over the last 10 years, but we still have a long way to go.” Among the challenges, she noted, are a lack of resources for low-income communities and the prevalence of advertising directed at children.

As a member of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, Story brings an empirical focus to the table.

“I think the only way we’re really going to deal with these issues is by people working together,” Story said. She mentioned that particularly over the past decade, efforts of initiatives such as Voices for Healthy Kids have helped to bring advocates, researchers, and local and state activities together to help all young people eat healthier foods and become more active..

Most recently, one issue on which Story and her staff at Healthy Eating Research have focused is the harmful practices of food marketing. A January 2015 report published on the organization’s website notes that “children encounter marketing on a daily basis in the places they live, learn, and play” and that “the majority of this child-directed marketing is for foods and beverages inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and is largely exempt from industry self-regulation.” The report calls for a shift in marketing practice to focus on foods that meet proper nutrition criteria.

The goal of her work, Story explains, is to create an environment that fosters lifelong good health, from childhood onward: “We’re trying to prevent things rather than having to treat them later.”