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Nutrition PhDs Explore Nutrition and Weight-Related Factors Among Overweight/Obese College Students


At the American Society for Nutrition’s annual conference, Nutrition 2019, researchers, practitioners, and other nutrition professionals gathered in Baltimore to share new findings and discuss implications for practice and policy. 

Two PhD candidates from the NYU Steinhardt Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, Rachel Ryan and Miriam Mahmood, were selected to share their research with the nutrition community at the conference. We spoke with them to learn more about ways their research is furthering the nutrition field.

Nutrition PhD candidates Rachel Ryan and Miriam Mahmood with Assistant Professor of Clinical Nutrition Jessica Bihuniak.

Nutrition PhD candidates Rachel Ryan and Miriam Mahmood with Assistant Professor of Clinical Nutrition Jessica Bihuniak.

Rachel Ryan

Ryan was named a finalist in the Emerging Leaders in Nutrition Science Competition at Nutrition 2019 for her investigation of the eating behaviors and food environments of overweight/obese students at both 2-year and 4-year college institutions.

What inspired you to research this topic specifically?

Although the prevalence of overweight and obesity is higher among community college students, very little nutrition-related research has been conducted on this population. Because of this lack of research, I was inspired to use data from an exploratory research project (collected by my colleague, Miriam Mahmood) to assess and compare select eating behaviors and components of the food environment of different student populations. 

What did you find?

We found that despite having a higher BMI, community college students tended to report more frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables. 

We were also surprised to find that a significant portion of the community college students reported eating meals prepared at home by their parental figures. Conversely, students attending the 4-year institution were more likely to report eating most of their meals on-campus. 

What do you hope will be the impact of this research?

My hope is that this research will highlight the importance of conducting formative work before developing interventions for understudied populations. Furthermore, I hope that researchers interested in developing weight-loss interventions for community college students will find this research to be helpful. 

Mahmood standing in front of her poster at Nutrition 2019.

Mahmood standing in front of her poster at Nutrition 2019.

Miriam Mahmood

Mahmood’s research explores the cooking beliefs and culinary program interest of college students with overweight/obesity at 2-year and 4-year college institutions.

What inspired you to investigate this topic?

As a Registered Dietitian who has provided nutrition education to patients with overweight and obesity, I knew that one important life skill for weight management is cooking knowledge and healthy meal preparation. 

Undergraduate college students are an understudied population that could potentially benefit from culinary interventions. This tends to be a period of increased autonomy when young adults begin to develop long-term health behaviors. For a number of students, this is the first time they are responsible for their own meals and helping them gain basic culinary skills may empower them to create balanced meals and maintain a healthy weight. 

How did your approach differ from other research in the field?

We specifically recruited students with overweight and obesity. Other nutrition-focused culinary interventions have included college students who do not have overweight/obesity and have not targeted undergraduate students with overweight/obesity. We wanted to focus on this high-risk population of students with overweight/obesity in order to create a tailored intervention that will combine hands-on culinary activities, nutrition education and core behavioral weight loss strategies.

What were the key findings of your research?

Four-year students reported lower cooking frequency than 2-year students, and among 4-year students, those with the highest average body mass index (BMI) had the lowest cooking frequency. We also found that 70% of 4-year students and 2-year students were interested in participating in a culinary-focused weight loss program for 6 to 8 weeks. Our qualitative findings show that students are interested in cooking skills, value taste and flavor, and are likely to participate to increase social interaction and develop a healthy lifestyle. 

Read more about our current Nutrition doctoral candidates.

Related Programs

Nutrition and Dietetics

Degrees within the Nutrition and Dietetics program combine basic science, nutritional science, food science, and research to prepare you for many career paths.