Illinois soybean farmers advocating healthy food choices with teens may seem like a strange partnership at first. But in reality, efforts to promote a well-balanced diet and lifestyle may help stem an alarming tide. The percent of overweight teenagers has tripled in the last 20 years, along with an increased incidence of Type 2 diabetes.

“With more time spent on sedentary activities and no physical education in some schools, childhood obesity rates are rising rapidly,” says Sharon Peterson, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIUC) assistant professor in community nutrition. “National data show 3.5% of adolescents have pre-diabetes.”

Researchers at two Illinois universities, including Peterson, are targeting such at-risk teens with the information they need to make wise lifestyle choices now. Soy and other foods considered part of a healthy diet are included in the “R. U. A. Healthy Kid?” project at SIUC and Healthy Outcomes for Teens (HOT) at the University of Illinois.

“We promote eating lean meat, eggs and milk, which of course were produced running soy through animals, and we offer soyfoods,” says Peterson. “Healthy snacks include having kids taste soymilk, soy nuts and soy protein bars. We strongly encourage them to try all the different foods.”

The initial R. U. A. Healthy Kid? program was coordinated in early 2008 with officials at Harrisburg (IL) Middle School. Fifth through eighth graders with three or more risk factors for Type 2 diabetes were referred to the program by physicians, school nurses, parents or guardians. Students participate in four program components: family meals, healthy snacks, physical activities and “Unique U.”

As part of the meal and snack components, students are taught how to prepare simple, healthy meals and snacks with the goals of replacing junk food with better choices. Families are encouraged to sit down and eat healthy meals together.

Physical activities focus on structured Saturday game play sessions and free fitness center sessions that include martial arts, gymnastics or work with a personal trainer. The final component, Unique U, includes goal setting and journaling by students. Each of the participants works with a graduate student who discusses self-esteem and body image and watches for any unhealthy dieting or eating disorders.

“The program is working,” says Peterson. “We have recorded statistically significant decreases in body fat percent and fat mass pounds and statistically significant increases in muscle mass pounds,” she says. “We collect data on different ages, different income levels and different ethnic backgrounds, as well.”

Peterson says the feedback has been positive. As a result of the initial project, the Harrisburg Middle School added computerized meal tracking in their school lunch program. In addition, Peterson is directing four graduate students and a PhD candidate who are evaluating various aspects of the program to make it even more effective, including intervention tactics, weekly phone calls and meal planning. One student is talking with school district leaders to sustain the program in Harrisburg and broaden the activity to include all students in a coordinated health program.

Given the success, Peterson and her colleagues expanded the program this fall to schools in Vienna and Highland, IL. Peterson has plans to develop a Web site, CD and even a board game that can be adopted statewide to serve more children.

USE OF TECHNOLOGY is the approach that has worked for the HOT project at the University of Illinois, too. HOT teaches similar life skills, says Karen Chapman-Novakofski, professor with the University of Illinois department of food science and human nutrition, by leveraging teen interest in technology. Like the R. U. A. Healthy Kid? project, HOT received funding from the soybean checkoff for its work.

The focus is on teaching students about diabetes risk factors and how family history, obesity and inactivity can make teens more vulnerable to developing Type 2 diabetes.

“We are not replacing the traditional education approach, but we have added technology as another venue to create sustainable change among teens in their eating habits and physical activity levels,” she says. “To succeed, we knew we needed to also be engaging and entertaining. We've used a Web-based format for our messages.”

The Web site has a teen attention-getting format and is divided into several learning modules that teach teens about planning meals, the food groups and diabetes, weight and exercise. Students can download a podcast, test their knowledge and more.

Chapman-Novakofski says researchers established a teen council as an advisory board. “The teens provide input about how they want to obtain diabetes information. We also gain insight into their eating habits and physical activity levels,” she says. “HOT was tested in after-school computer labs and health classes in early 2008. Then we followed up with teens a month later to determine what modules were most beneficial and which behaviors teens may have changed as a result of the diabetes information and education.”

Data gathering continues. Chapman-Novakofski hopes the program will remain sustainable, even after the grant ends. She is working with focus groups on wording and the approaches they take, and is “over-sampling” populations to be sure it appeals to broad ethnic audiences. They are also studying how to keep the program attractive to teachers so they continue to use the materials after university research is complete.

“Making teens aware of the risks of diabetes is the first step toward encouraging healthy eating habits and increased physical activity,” says Darla Castelli, assistant professor, University of Illinois department |of kinesiology and community health. “Our ultimate hope is that teens who participate in the HOT project will gain knowledge and skills that will change their behavior and lifestyle now and in the future.”