Helping Kids Form Healthy Habits

Rutgers–Camden Health Sciences and Nursing Faculty Are Focused on Teaching Children Lessons about Body Image, Nutrition, and Positive Practices

Professor Charlotte Markey, left, sought input from her daughter, Grace, center, and student Nana Amponsah when writing her forthcoming book The Body Image Book for Girls.

By Shelby Vittek GSC’16

More adults than ever feel uncomfortable in their skin. Estimates are that 90 percent of women and 61 percent of men are dissatisfied with their bodies. Charlotte Markey, professor of psychology and founding director of the Rutgers University–Camden Health Sciences Center, knows these figures—and their long-term effects—well.

For more than 20 years, Markey’s research has focused on diet, eating, and body image—defined as the perception that a person has of their physical self—and how they make up the way we think and feel about ourselves. In 2014, she published her first book, Smart People Don’t Diet: How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently. Intended for adult readers, it was about why diets are ineffective—and which healthier habits actually work. During the writing, she began to picture a similar version for a younger audience. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if before some of these bad habits got set in place that young people had this information?’ ” she said. “What if we could just prevent this dissatisfaction from brewing in the first place?”

The ideas percolated for a couple of years before Markey shifted her full attention to the younger generation. Many leading causes of death can be attributed to people’s behaviors, such as how they eat, whether or not they exercise, and what, if any, substances they use. The earlier a person adopts healthy habits, the more likely they are to stave off a variety of illnesses and problems, including anxiety, depression, obesity, and eating disorders. Markey wanted to reach youth when their health routines and sense of self are being set for the rest of their lives. “Habits, by definition, are hard to change,” Markey said. “Getting into good habits early in life can literally be life-saving.”

This idea is the focus of Markey’s forthcoming book, The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless, to be published in spring 2020 by Cambridge University Press. It reaches out to girls in an attempt to break the cycles that contribute to the alarmingly high rate of body dissatisfaction prevalent in women. Intended for preteen and adolescent girls, it is written in an easy-to-read format and includes illustrations and chapters about body image, self-care, body positivity, nutrition and healthy eating habits, physical activity, mental health, and social media. It offers girls tips to help them accept and appreciate their bodies, which Markey said will contribute to their long-term mental and physical health. “There’s something really limiting about thinking that you’re deriving your value from your appearance,” she said. “To shift the conversation about that is really important.” Markey added thatsome of topics covered in the book are in sync with issues that have come up in recent years, such as the #MeToo, body positivity, and diversity movements. “It’s a really good time, socially and politically, to be talking about these things.”

Before she was ready to address younger readers, Markey relied on her Rutgers–Camden students to test her tone and approach. Since 2003, Markey has taught Psychology of Eating, a class that covers nutrition, body image, obesity, food policy, and other topics. “My teaching informed my writing almost more than my research, because it’s a similar audience,” she said. “They got me thinking about how to explain things to a general reader. That’s something I do more with teaching than with scholarship.”

Nana Amponsah CCAS’19 assisted with research and commented on drafts of Markey’s book while earning her health sciences degree.

She also relied on a small group of Rutgers–Camden students during the writing process. Five female research assistants helped research and brainstorm possible topics for Markey to cover in The Body Image Book for Girls, as well as read rough drafts of the chapters as she finished writing them. “The whole process made me more interested in research,” said Nana Amponsah, one of Markey’s student assistants, who graduated in May with a degree in health sciences. Amponsah raised important points along the way, such as making sure the book offered alternatives for girls whose families live in food deserts, and that it didn’t exclude girls with disabilities. “There are so many kinds of girls out there, and I wanted everyone to get something out of it,” she said.

Amponsah, who lives in Willingboro, New Jersey, and is considering graduate programs, said participating in the research process was rewarding. She expects the book will impact a younger generation of girls in a positive way. “It reaches girls in a way they’ll understand,” she said.

In addition to enlisting students’ help, Markey conducted interviews and focus groups in Camden and in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where she lives, reaching more than 100 girls ranging in age from 10 to 15—including her own 12-year-old daughter, Grace. “She read a lot of these chapters for me, which was kind of a fun role reversal for her, and really useful to me,” Markey said.

Twelve-year-old Maya Grande also enjoyed being part of the focus groups, in which she read chapter drafts and offered feedback. The concept that stuck with her most was about healthy eating habits. “I learned that diets aren’t the best way to go about it,” she said.

Her mother, Sindhu Srinivas, believes the book has an important message. “It targets a certain age of girls and helps combat a lot of the negative messaging they’re exposed to,” Srinivas said.

Markey is hopeful that girls will embrace her new book, and as a result, the next generation of girls won’t encounter the same amount of insecurity. She is also already looking ahead to her next book project. Discussions for The Body Image Book for Boys are already underway. “I’ve started talking with graduate psychology students to get help interviewing boys.”

Regardless of gender, the message Markey wants to spread is universal: “You don’t have to be just one thing. Be who you are—whatever color, size, or shape you are—and be the best that you can be.”

Nursing Outreach Prepares Preschoolers

In addition to Markey’s work, students and faculty in the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden have a similar goal and are expanding a program aimed at teaching preschoolers healthy habits. For the past four years, nursing students have taught nutrition classes to preschoolers at the Catholic Youth Organization of Mercer County in Trenton. The program, called Curriculum in a Box, covers topics such as nutrition, dental health, yoga and mindfulness, water safety, stranger safety, and bullying. Nursing students sit with the preschoolers, reading books and doing various activities that cover the different themes.

Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden students, pictured leading yoga lessons for preschoolers in Trenton, teach healthy habits to children.

A primary theme is making healthy food choices. The lunch served at the school follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for a balanced diet of fruits, grains, vegetables, and protein, and includes healthy foods some students have never eaten, such as green beans. To encourage students to try foods that are new to them, nursing students ask the students to take at least two bites of the food. “Even the ones that didn’t finish it, they all tried it,” said Kate Ormsby, a senior from Maple Shade, New Jersey.

The sessions are mutually beneficial for the future nurses and the preschoolers. The young children learn how to live healthy lives, and the nursing students have an opportunity to learn about patients they will encounter when they become nurses. “When you do health education programs like this, you hit everyone,” said Kathie Prihoda, a clinical assistant professor at the School of Nursing. “It’s really beneficial for all parties involved.”

This fall, nursing students are teaching the Curriculum in a Box nutrition program at the health center recently opened in the Branches at Centerville housing community in Camden. Prihoda is excited to watch the program further expand its reach to nearby preschoolers. “The children love it,” she said. “As soon as the nursing students show up in their red uniform tops, the kids start embracing them.” Gabrielle Gutleber, an accelerated nursing program student who will graduate in December, found participating in the program to be valuable. “I love being able to go to different parts of the community and be a part of educating the youth,” she said. “It’s a unique way to get children actively engaged.”

Shelby Vittek, associate editor at New Jersey Monthly magazine, holds an M.F.A. from Rutgers–Camden.

Posted in: 2019 Fall, Features

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