Kristine Durkin, a West Virginia University graduate student, is carrying out a study to assess whether teenagers with cystic fibrosis (CF) are meeting their nutritional requirements, and identify ways to help them improve their diets.
CF teenagers often struggle to maintain healthy weight. They usually receive two to three hours of medical treatments every day, and have to eat large meals in order to meet their bodies’ nutrient requirements. They often deal with body image issues.
Durkin, a fourth-year clinical psychology doctoral student, is trying to find ways to make it easier for CF teens to meet their dietary recommendations for nutrition.
“It is extremely difficult for adolescents to adhere to these recommendations, because they are out of the house in high school, not home eight or nine hours of the day. They are embarrassed to take enzymes in front of friends,” Durkin said in a press release.
“There are all of these barriers that are making nutritional adherence challenging, in addition to body image and societal expectations on weight,” Durkin said.
Her two-year study is designed to identify factors that may help CF patients meet their nutrition recommendations. The study is being supported by the National Institutes of Health’s Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award.
Durkin’s research will be conducted at five study sites: Ruby Memorial Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Colorado Children’s Hospital, University of Florida Shands Hospital, and Children’s Hospital of Richmond.
Durkin and her research team — composed of pediatric psychologists, dietitians, and both graduate and undergraduate psychology students — plan to conduct surveys of approximately 110 CF teens to determine whether they are currently meeting their nutritional recommendations.
Teenagers, as well as their caregivers, will be evaluated for health literacy, body image, and any barriers to completing their treatments. The team will talk to each participant twice, and ask them to recall the foods and beverages they consumed over the past day.
Smaller focus groups with patients and dietitians at each site are also planned.
“We will assess their intake of food and drink, as well as enzymes, to get a clear picture of what a day looks like for adolescents around dietary recommendations,” Durkin said. “We will try to understand what is happening right now: What do they see as their strengths, and what do they see as areas for improvement?”
She hopes the results from the study will lead to behavioral training for dietitians, and nutrition training for psychologists, to improve care for CF patients.
“We want to see if this kind of a project is feasible with the long-term goal of creating a behavioral intervention about dietary recommendations with adolescents or other populations,” Durkin said. “I’d love to someday bridge the gaps between these two professions.”
“What we put in our bodies greatly affects our mental health, which is really just health,” she said. “Structuring your environment to promote healthy eating is something we have a lot knowledge about, and we shouldn’t be siloed as researchers. We should work together.”
The effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on the project is “unclear at this point,” Durkin said in a March 18 email. “Fortunately, the study procedures are largely remote as far as data collection, given the multi-site nature of the project,” she said.
“Recruitment will likely be impacted, because clinics are streamlining visits and moving many to telehealth check-ins,” she said. “We do not want to create additional burden for clinic staff as they work hard to support patients during this difficult time. Overall, we will be following the guidelines of our research and institutional officials by developing concrete and actionable plans that limit risk to study participants and study staff.”
Durkin plans to graduate in May 2022, following the conclusion of the study. She hopes to become a pediatric psychologist.
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