By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
Leah Whigham, Ph.D., has been passionate about health since she was a child. She remembers placing physical activity calendars on the refrigerator to motivate her family to exercise, and pinning healthy snack ideas inside the door of the pantry.
“I’ve always been excited about health and I’ve also always had a great respect for science,” said Whigham, the first executive director of the newly formed Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living (IHL). Whigham will officially join the institute on Jan. 1, 2014.
The IHL is an initiative by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation (PdNHF) that involves The University of Texas at El Paso; The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health; and the Texas Tech University Health Science Center-Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.
Whigham will lead the institute’s efforts to advance healthy nutrition and physical activity and reduce childhood obesity across the Paso del Norte region by developing innovative and sustainable solutions for healthy eating and active living.
An expert on obesity, nutrition and weight loss, Whigham looks forward to generating the same enthusiasm she has for healthful lifestyles across the region.
“It’s about overall healthier living,” said Whigham, who has a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s not just about how much a person weighs. It’s about how physically active they are, how healthy their food choices are, and all of that can contribute to a higher quality of life as well as improved health. That’s really what the big picture goal of the institute is: to help people of this region to attain a healthier lifestyle and improve the quality of health.”
Whigham is currently a research nutritionist in the Healthy Body Weight Research Unit of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in North Dakota.
Throughout her 20-year career, she has relied on scientific methods to identify approaches to help people improve health.
“(Leah Whigham) has led a team of scientists investigating many factors, such as behavior, demographic, environmental, psychological and biological factors that influence food choices and physical activity practices,” said Kathleen Curtis, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Health Sciences and the institute’s principal investigator. “Her research is focused on identifying the barriers that people face in adopting effective strategies to support a healthy body weight and identifying the motivational factors that influence changes in eating behaviors and habits.”
Whigham’s first order of business when she moves with her husband and two daughters from North Dakota to El Paso is to get to know the community, including the unique challenges facing the U.S.-Mexico border population when it comes to improving health.
She intends to spend a lot of one-on-one time talking to community leaders, business owners, researchers, health and public policy makers, and school officials to learn about the strategies and programs already in place and what barriers need to be overcome.
“There can be unique challenges with poverty levels and cultural differences and preferences toward food attitudes, toward physical activity and also broader social cultural differences related to body image and health that can be very important,” Whigham said. “All are important to keep in mind when trying to address the specific programs and initiatives that will be most likely to have an impact.”
By leveraging the expertise of three universities, Whigham said the IHL will be able to address the problems associated with obesity at multiple levels, including the individual, the family, the community and schools, health clinics, and health and public policy.
“There are shared learnings and it’s important that we don’t try to reinvent the wheel, but we also need to be respectful of the unique environment in this region. We’ve got so many talented people that have been working with this population for years,” Whigham said. “I’m so appreciative to work with [the universities and the PdNHF] and draw on their expertise to help us identify what those unique aspects are and how we can work to address changes needed in a very culturally appropriate and regionally appropriate manner.”
Whigham’s children will start school in El Paso in January, which will give the IHL director a firsthand account of nutrition and physical activity in the local schools.
“I found that being a parent is one of the best ways to get a feel for the attitudes, beliefs, barriers and facilitators within the community,” Whigham said. “A lot of the work I’ve done in the past has been as much from my role as a parent as it has been from my role as a scientist.”
In North Dakota, Whigham worked with her community’s school lunch program to start an elementary school gardening club. She also helped a colleague from California implement an after-school cooking program for middle school children in North Dakota.
Michael P. Kelly, Ph.D., senior program officer for the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, said the foundation was looking for a leader who had the right credentials and personal skill sets and was not just a scientist who understands nutrition and physical activity, but someone who could be a catalyst for change.
After an exhaustive and thorough search, Whigham fit the profile.
“The foundation is confident we found the right leader,” Kelly said. “We’re excited to have [Whigham] on board and we’re eager to get started to help the residents of Juárez, El Paso and southern New Mexico and promote healthy eating and active living.”
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