Photographer:Fotograaf: Jef Simons
Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Assistant professor Jessica Gubbels would like to know from as many children as possible how environmental factors affect their eating habits and physical activity. This is urgently needed, says Gubbels, because these are insufficiently taken into account at the moment.
Vegetables and fruit during the lunch break at school: good for children's health, you would think. That is correct, says Gubbels, “but only if parents also stimulate healthy eating at home. Otherwise it often has the opposite effect; children then go home to eat hamburgers and crisps. The further the home situation is from the school situation, the worse it becomes. So you always have to be careful with interventions such as this in order not to create differences.”
This is one of the findings from Gubbels’ current research into overweight children. More specifically: the effects of immediate environmental factors on nutrition and physical activity. Choosing children has a twofold reason: “Today's children are tomorrow's adults.” It is also easier to examine children, Gubbels explains. “The adult environment is many times greater and more complex.”
The tricky thing about her research is that every child grows up in a different environment: “A different house, different parents, different neighbourhood, a different sports club, a different classroom, a different route to school, a different supermarket, et cetera. To complete the picture would be the first step in my dream research.” Preferably for as many children as possible, at least a thousand.”
“The second step would be to look at their behaviour. I would want to make it as easy as possible for the participants. I was thinking of an app, which still has to be developed, that they could use to upload photographs of what they eat. This app must be capable of making a 3D analysis in order to determine the exact amounts. That is easier than questionnaires, keeping logs or making phone calls: participants are often unlettered and if they have to weigh their own food, there are often measuring problems.”
To measure the participants' physical activity, a movement tracker could be used. Although, progress could be made in this area, says Gubbels. “Existing technology, for example, often doesn't know if someone is walking or cycling. The idea is that the tracker recognises patterns and that they, connected to GPS, also register where someone is. That then says something about the environment. Those trackers are very expensive and the technology is still incomplete for my research. With the dream research money, I would purchase and optimise these, so that the required complicated analyses can be executed.”
Bringing together these two things – environment and behaviour – is the last step of her dream research. “I would then be able to see exactly which factors have a bad or good influence on eating and physical activity behaviour. Then I could come up with the perfect intervention for each individual person and I could recognise possible patterns, so that I could learn how to prevent excess weight in the future.”