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Couple finds childhood obesity solutions

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

She brings food science and technology to the table. He adds the psychology of sales, a history with sports and more.

Together, the Austin husband-and-wife team of Deanna Hoelscher and Steven Kelder are burning up the world of nutrition research, including a key piece to the childhood obesity puzzle.

"We hardly ever agree at first," Hoelscher, 51, admits. "We came from different backgrounds and ways of framing issues. Turns out we have very complementary working styles and expertise. Steve brings a business background. I have the biology background. I'm detail-oriented. He's big-picture. We go back and forth."

Brisk but empathetic and humorous, Hoelscher is the incoming president of the International Society for Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, which will welcome 600 experts to the Four Seasons Hotel and the Austin Convention Center for a conference May 23-26.

Together, Hoelscher and Kelder oversee — take a deep breath — the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health Austin Regional Campus, part of the UT Health Science Center at Houston. Their research team occupies a portion of a rehabbed building on Guadalupe Street across from the Dog and Duck Pub.

The work unfolds in overlapping projects, depending on the flow of grants and goals shared with other health researchers.

"Academia is like managing a series of small businesses," Kelder, 53, says. A background in sales gives him insight into how others think about health. "Many of the things we do deal with speaking to schools and kids. ... Taking the perspective of others allows us to see into their lives and help them."

Kelder grew up in a hard-drinking northern Illinois culture of Germans and Swedes. A bearish man, he played football, basketball, tennis and track. He was fit, but he smoked, which he gave up when he moved away.

After studying marketing and economics at Northern Illinois University, he worked as a salesman for Xerox, then Johnson & Johnson medical supply and, after that, Ethicon, which produced and sold sutures for surgical procedures.

That led to a disciplined curiosity about chronic diseases and eventually graduate degrees in health education, public health and epidemiology.

"I became interested in a more refined way in what health was and what medicine had to offer," he says. "I became interested in prevention, on the influence of smoking on the body and how exercise and diet could help."

From an early age, Floresville native Hoelscher pursued medicine and nutrition.

"I was very interested in science," she says. "I also really enjoyed cooking. Cooked for my family a lot. A family friend, our priest, he had high cholesterol. That's what got me interested in the effects of food on health."

She'd rather forget that her ribbon-winning dish at a 4-H food show was speedy cheeseburger pie.

Hoelscher earned her first degree from Texas A&M University, then moved over to UT for graduate study, researching mineral metabolism and the effects of nutrients on brain structure.

Both previously married, the couple met while working on the vast CATCH Project, a multisite, multidecade review of strategies to fight childhood obesity.

"The romance began in the conference room," Kelder says. "We believe intensely in this work."

Their recent award-winning research was completed in collaboration with the Paso del Norte Foundation and the El Paso school district.

"They saw one of the first significant reductions in obesity among Latino poor kids," Kelder says. "That made me feel we had a chance to help children and families from poor urban areas with income disparities. We have a lot of poor kids in the Texas public school system."

Turns out, no one is exempt from promoting healthy options.

"We can't produce the results we want if the community is not engaged and if the parents are not engaged," Hoelscher says. "It's hard to get everybody on the same page, especially since we are surrounded by so much marketing that runs counter to healthy living."

The couple are excited about the prospect of future Austin research nurtured by a medical school and teaching hospital.

"Our work is beginning to peak," Kelder says. "We've been learning about obesity for 10 years. We know what to do, and our work offers one of the solutions. Now we have to convince people it's time to take action."

While some politicians complain about the "food police," this pair aims for reasonable goals for healthy eating.

"We need to make it more accessible to children and adults," Hoelscher says. "It doesn't mean you can't have celebratory food. Our point: Healthy food should be the default. I think food is fun. And healthy food is fun."

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