Associate professor Jennifer Sacheck discusses nutrition and health with a young soccer player.
Associate professor Jennifer Sacheck discusses nutrition and health with a young soccer player.

Jennifer Sacheck, N01, sees an essential connection between nutrition research, changing policy, and improving lives. Currently leading multiple community-based studies to better understand and reverse the causes of childhood obesity, Sacheck’s work partners with schools to study obesity while implementing interventions around school lunches, PE time, and other issues of school policy.

Sacheck is an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention. Along with her colleges Miriam Nelson and Christiana Economos, Sacheck is also a member of the Tisch College faculty.

“As a scientist, I think you have to be mentally and physically cognizant of what your research does, not only for its results and implications for the future, but for the impact it has on the individuals involved, and their communities,” she said.

“It’s not enough to take a sample, thank the subject, and then go away and assess their blood,” Sacheck continued.  “You need to feed that information back into the community, give those results to people, and incorporate their responses in how you proceed.  It’s a level of communication beyond what comes out in a manuscript, but that kind of work is rarely part of grants, so right now it’s up to individual researchers to make that effort.”

Associate professor Jennifer SacheckSacheck’s research is influencing policy by helping to explain the complex interplay between diet, environment, and behavior that result in different levels of fitness and overall health.  For the past year she has worked with other researchers at the Institute of Medicine on a report on fitness and health outcomes in youth, with the aim of affecting national policy.  Sacheck has presented on childhood obesity and physical activity in the state to the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum, a non-profit non-partisan organization that seeks to improve the healthcare system by bringing the highest quality research to leaders in the public and private sectors.

“What we know about fitness and physical activity in Massachusetts isn’t great,” she said.  “The data is patchy, and we need to know much more, here and nationally.  In this state, 57% of high school students report not having been active for at least sixty minutes continuously in the previous week.  Only 17% are active daily.  30% report watching more than three hours of TV daily; the recommendation is less than two.  Almost half don’t attend PE in an average week.  And that’s what is self-reported – for the most part the data is not collected systematically and objectively.”

Diet and exercise habits are usually established early in life, and changes made in childhood or adolescence can last for years.  Sacheck is working on a project that develops interventions for children at risk of health problems that reaches them in their schools.

“We’re looking at fitness testing in schools, and how being fit or unfit impacts overweight kids and their health,” said Sacheck.  “We use clinical measures – height and weight, blood lipids, cardiovascular indicators – and give the results to parents.  It’s in the context of the school, and parent outreach, to promote the idea that even if a kid is overweight or not fit, they can overcome the hazards and have improved health for life.”

Another line of Sacheck’s research focuses on the effects of a specific nutrient, vitamin D.

“This is a huge clinical trial with urban schoolchildren, including students in Somerville and Medford,” she explained.  “75% of the children are vitamin D deficient, so we’re looking at the effects of supplements on their overall health.  It’s an underserved population, depending on the school 70-90% qualify for free or reduced lunch, about half are overweight or obese.  Again it’s about raising awareness, giving results to parents, and sharing this information with pediatricians whenever possible.  We’re looking at key pieces in the prevention of disease and obesity, and so far it’s been really successful.”

Before coming to Tufts, Sacheck spent four years doing post-doctoral research at Harvard.

“It was basically pure muscle cell biology,” she said.  “Petri dishes and molecular mechanisms.  I wanted to come back to humans, and I’ve been able to do that here at Tufts.”

“My work now is much more applied than looking at muscle and fat tissue in isolation,” Sacheck continued.  “I want to impact policy, and keep the focus on the body and extend that to the bigger picture.  Even when I’m teaching biochemistry, I want my students to understand that what we’re after is the whole body, fit, healthy, and nutritionally sound.”

Portrait photo by Jeff Foley.

Originally published November 2012