First All-Friedman Journal Club Discusses Controversial Article on Neighborhoods and the Obesity Connection

By Allison Knott, RD

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy held its first all student journal club last month.  It brought together students from multiple programs within the school to discuss a recent article published in The New England Journal of Medicine about neighborhoods and their effect on obesity and health.  The article, titled “Neighborhoods, Obesity, and Diabetes – A Randomized Social Experiment,” is quite unique because it applies to all programs in the Friedman School.  Students from the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program, the Nutrition Communication program, the Bimolecular Nutrition program, and the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program contributed to the discussion making for a lively, educational debate.

The study investigated the relationship between neighborhood environments and their contribution to obesity and diabetes development.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development distributed housing vouchers between 1994 and 1998 to 4498 women with children in public housing.  The women were randomly assigned to one of three groups: vouchers redeemable without any restrictions or counseling, vouchers redeemable only if the person moved to a low poverty census tract and received counseling, and a group without any vouchers.  Body mass index and hemoglobin A1c were primary outcome measures.  The researchers found that living in a neighborhood with lower poverty rates was associated with a reduction in “extreme obesity and diabetes.”

Will Masters, Professor and Chair of the Department of Food and Nutrition Policy, along with Ed Saltzman, MD and Chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences, initiated and organized the presentation.  Four students facilitated the discussion: Sarah Silwa, MS, Whitney Evans, MS RD, LDN, Phil Karl, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, and Rebecca Nemec, a second year Agriculture, Food, and Environment student.  The students meticulously combed through the article and provided a review of the background, methods, results, and conclusions.  The discussion that followed was informative, but not conclusive.  Though the study had the benefit of randomization, many Tufts faculty members found the statistical analysis to be less than perfect.  In addition, students and faculty questioned the study’s set definition of a “community,” and addressed the potential for confirmation bias.

The diverse areas of study at the Friedman School make it hard to find research that touches on multiple topics that all Friedman students can relate to.  However when the opportunity arose, Will Masters and Ed Saltzman thought it was important to discuss the article as a student body.  The success of the presentation and large turnout of students indicated a desire to continue group discussions in the future.  Examining a topic from all sides, something the Friedman student body is capable of doing due to its diversified programs, provides additional insight into a specific issue and/or academic study.  Many students who attended were overhead saying how much they enjoyed the discussions and hoped that it would happen in the future.  And Will Masters expressed a desire to continue such group meetings and journal clubs as articles are published.

Overall, I think targeting the entire Friedman population was a successful strategy that should continue in the future.  Through school-wide journal clubs such as this, we have the unique advantage to promote an environment that fosters a diversified view of the nutrition field.

Allison is a second year Nutrition Communication student and registered dietitian.  She has a passion for communicating sound nutrition information to the public.  Follow her kitchen blunders, triathlon adventures, and read nutrition advice on her blog, Choices.Habits.Lifestyle.

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