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Telenutrition research aims to help West Virginians reduce chronic disease risk

Photo of young woman speaking with older woman on computer screen.

Morgantown, W.Va. - A West VirginiaUniversity researcher and students will study how to improve diet and diet-related chronic conditions using telehealth in West Virginia, where rates of obesity, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes  are among the highest in nation.

The four-year study, led by Melissa Ventura Marra, associate professor of human nutrition and foods  in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is funded by a $969,631 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture. 

Telenutrition is the two-way delivery of nutrition care using technologies like Zoom, which allow patients to receive care directly in their homes. By using technology as the delivery method, geographical barriers are eliminated, giving patients improved access to nutrition experts.

In 2016, a 12-week pilot study of the program in middle-aged men revealed that participants in the intervention group lost at least 5% of their body weight—compared to 40% of those in the control group. Losing as little as 3% of one’s initial body weight can reduce the risk of chronic disease. In addition, some participants in the control group were successful with minimal education and interaction.

This USDA grant will allow the team of researchers to expand the pilot study to include men and women of various age groups and will provide the means to see the longer-term effects of the research project. The program will have a 12-month active intervention component followed by a 6-month post-intervention follow-up to determine if participants continued their healthy behaviors beyond the intervention.

For this study, all participants will receive the intervention. However, the frequency of interactions with the dietitian and nutrition coaches will differ. Marra’s goal is to learn how much interaction or “dosage” is ideal.

“People have told us in previous studies that when they are ready to make changes to improve their diets, they can be confused by the wide variety of nutrition advice available to them,” Marra said. “Some aren’t sure what changes to make and need practical advice on how to plan and cook healthy, affordable meals with the foods available to them.”

She hopes to develop and implement a program that can be accessed by patients regardless of healthcare coverage and location, while better preparing students for telehealth practice and client communication.

“It’s not just a research grant; it’s also a teaching grant,” Marra added. “A registered dietitian will work

Photo of five young women posing for photo in kitchen lab with foods.

with participants to set up a plan. Undergraduate nutrition students will talk with them and provide virtual nutrition coaching on the practical aspects of implementing their individualized plans such as tips for grocery shopping, meal planning and food preparation. What do you purchase at the grocery store? How do you put that together in a nutritious meal that’s affordable and that won’t take all day to prepare?”

While the students are learning principles of nutrition and coaching in the classroom, they will get practical experience using those same skills.

Her goals are to expand opportunities for student access to real-world experience, improve health outcomes for West Virginians and develop a program with a framework that will sustain itself even after the grant funding has ended.

The pilot study was funded in part by the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Funding Opportunity with funds made available from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Collaborators on the project include WVU School of Medicine Professor Dina Jones; WVU School of Public Health Associate Professor Christa Lilly; Dr. Kelly R. Nelson, WVU Medicine; Dr. James Becker, medical director of the Bureau for Medical Services at West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Marshall University; Lianne Williamson, director of online programs at the Davis College; and WVU Health Sciences Information Technology. MDTV will provide support for the telehealth platform.

To learn more about the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, visit Keep up with the latest updates and news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by following @WVUDavis.



CONTACT: Leah Smith  
Public Relations Specialist
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design  


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