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Better health through better eating

The U's Center for Community Nutrition aims to advance public health through community outreach.

Some of the most effective medicine for good health doesn’t come from the pharmacy. It can be found in our refrigerators or pantries. What we eat plays a huge role in our well-being. Spreading that message is the mission for the University of Utah Center for Community Nutrition (UCCN).

The center was created in 2017 to advance public health through community outreach. The team is made up of registered dietitians, community nutritionists and faculty members, as well as master’s students at the University of Utah College of Health who are studying nutrition, said Dr. Julie Metos, UCCN executive director.

“Our purpose is to provide a link between the research done in our program, scientific research on metabolism and nutrition and to incorporate that into community programs so we can improve the nutritional health of Utahns,” she said.

The center works to get the message out about how even small changes in eating habits can have a big impact on a person’s health, Metos said. So, UCCN aims that message where it’s needed most: at school-aged children, people facing economic difficulties or homelessness, and people in underserved communities.

The center has outreach programs aimed at children in schools. One is “Crush Diabetes,” a program for middle school students and their families in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. It uses a data-backed curriculum, as well as visual aids like showcasing the amount of processed sugars in foods and drinks, to teach healthy habits designed to reduce cases of diabetes.

“It’s important to start early, especially in middle school,” she said. That’s when children start to have more autonomy over what they eat, and their physical activity. “We know with diabetes that the younger you are when you get diabetes, the more difficult it can be to manage. We want to get these lifestyle behaviors set early in life, or at a minimum get students thinking about them so they can start making those changes” as well as influencing their families to make healthy lifestyle choices.

The center also reaches out to people who are experiencing homelessness, or families in low-income situations. Often for those people, access to nutritious foods is sparse, Metos said.

“It can be really challenging, especially when money is tight, to eat healthy,” Metos said. Sometimes the knowledge and will to eat healthy is there, but access to healthy foods is in short supply. UCCN works with food banks and food pantries to stock nutritious, whole foods and produce from community-supported agriculture, even doing “makeovers” of food pantries for more healthy food.

In September, UCCN will host “Food is Medicine,” a virtual conference for health care providers, students, and community members. Practical seminars will address nutrition in health care. Guest speakers including Dr. Marion Nestle, a best-selling author and nutrition expert, will share information about healthy eating patterns, wellness, and health that practitioners can easily share with clients.

The conference is also open to anyone who wants to learn more, Metos said.

“Food Is Medicine” offers 6.5 CME/CE credits. People who are interested can register online.