Healthy choices for kids

Jamie Chriqui, senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy, advocates for healthy choices in schools. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Jamie Chriqui’s 11-year-old son doesn’t tell his friends what his mother does for a living.

Chriqui fights childhood obesity by, among other things, advocating for healthy food choices in schools.

“When he started middle school I asked what they were serving,” she said.

“I can tell you what they’re NOT selling,” her son, Joshua, replied. “Soda!”

He added, “I’m not going to tell my friends that’s because of your work. They won’t talk to me.”

Chriqui, a senior research scientist in the Institute for Health Research and Policy, spends much of her time “looking at the impact of public policy — federal, state and local school districts — on how they might improve on the childhood obesity situation.”

Considered a nationwide expert on obesity-related topics, she is often consulted by policymakers and advocates.

Chriqui was one of 17 members of the Institute of Medicine Committee to Accelerate Progress in Obesity Prevention, headed by former U.S. agriculture secretary Dan Glickman. It wrapped up two years of study with a report in 2012.

She also is one of 14 members of a follow-up group, the institute’s Committee to Evaluate Progress in Obesity Prevention.

Most of her work focuses on school-based policy: whether schools are required to provide opportunities for physical activity, access to healthier food and nutrition education.

Nearly one in three American children and adolescents is obese or overweight, and increasing obesity rates are associated with type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease, she pointed out.

To get the full picture on obesity, Chriqui also looks at factors outside the school environment.

She’s principal investigator of a project funded by the National Institutes of Health to study how state and local beverage taxes affect household purchases, and the resulting weight outcomes for adults and adolescents.

Another NIH-funded study examines the relationship between zoning codes and adult physical activity.

Zoning can stimulate walking and bicycling by placing retail close to residential areas, enabling “sidewalk connectivity” and linking people to public transportation, Chriqui noted.

“It can make it easier for people to be more active in their daily life,” she said.

The overall goal of her research is “to answer the age-old question, ‘Does law matter?’” she said.

“With public health laws, to what extent do they improve our environment and opportunities to eat healthier?”

In addition to obesity, Chriqui takes an interest in substance abuse, tobacco control and efforts to combat cancer.

The fact that she has an 11-year-old son underlines the importance of her work for her.

“I have no concern about him becoming obese, but I want to be sure the environment he is in is a healthy one,” she said.

“I grew up at a time when kids were outside running around, not inside playing video games, and when drinking soda was not the norm.”

Chriqui grew up in Westport, Conn. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College in New York City and a master’s from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Hygiene and Public Health, then a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

While in school she spent six years as a policy analyst with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health. She also put in 11 years in government contracting as a public health law researcher. She joined UIC in 2007.

Chriqui lives in Naperville with her son and her husband, Stephan, a technologist with Microsoft.

“He solves all of my computer problems in the middle of the night when I’m working on a grant proposal,” she said.

She enjoys exercise, which she finds to be a great stress reliever, and travel, especially to warm places like the Caribbean. But she also likes Europe, and plans a return visit there next summer.

As for work, “One of the things I love about it is that I feel like I’m making a difference,” she said.

“I have the opportunity to influence the policy process in a way I wasn’t able to do working in government.

“I can see the results of our work everywhere I turn.”

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Faculty, Research