In any rural areas, treating chronic diseases related to diet and weight is challenging because of limited access to food and nutrition experts. A West Virginia University professor has found that using technology to connect those experts with middle-aged and older patients in those areas can improve nutritional health.

Melissa Ventura Marra, assistant professor of human nutrition and foods in the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is part of a multistate research team that is evaluating how food security and lifestyle choices such as diet quality and physical activity affect individual health and well-being.

The project includes a broad range of research, from basic science to social science, from 13 universities around the country. A team of scientists from the group will present their findings during a special symposium as part of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics on July 23-27 in San Francisco. The symposium, titled “Successes in older adult nutrition and physical activity studies,” is the result of a USDA-funded multistate research project that began in 1989.

The research project examines three areas: molecular and mechanistic understanding of how nutrients and activity can influence age-related diseases, environmental factors that influence the adoption of health-promoting lifestyle changes, and lifestyle needs assessment and evaluation of lifestyle interventions that lead to measurable outcomes.

Marra is involved in several studies that are part of the overarching project. At the symposium she will present on a pilot project that was conducted in Harrison County, West Virginia, that assessed the use of telenutrition to achieve weight loss and improvements in diet in a group of middle-aged and older men.

Telenutrition uses various technologies to implement nutrition care. It is akin to Skype or Facetime, but its purpose is to deliver nutrition care directly to patients in their homes.

“Telenutrition is a form of telehealth that has the potential to increase access to nutrition care, particularly to people in rural areas where alternatives may be lacking,” Marra said. “If patients do not have access to high-speed internet, they can receive telenutrition services at their local healthcare provider’s office, which increases access to nutrition care in rural areas.”

The goal of her study was to determine whether patients would be interested in participating in a telenutrition program, which included weekly interaction with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, for weight loss and if the program would be more effective than a group who only received diet-related literature.

“The results from the pilot study were encouraging,” Marra said. “Because of the support from the doctors in the community, we had enough interest in the program that we ended up with a waiting list.”

Results of the study also showed that 70% of patients in the intervention group lost at least 5% of their body weight compared to 40% of those in the control group.

“This is important because losing as little as 3% of initial body weight can have clinical significance,” Marra said.

In order to gather more information about the effectiveness of telenutrition, Marra’s goal is to expand the study to conduct a larger, longer-term trial.

“We were happy so many patients lost weight, but helping them maintain the weight loss and new dietary habits is even more important,” she said.

Midlife and older adults represent the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. They also have higher rates of obesity, chronic disease and disability than previous generations and younger adults.

“The health of the aging adults is of particular significance in West Virginia,” Marra said. “That is why I’m so pleased for WVU to join with other universities to find ways to improve the health and wellness of this segment of our population,” said Marra, who serves as chair-elect of the multistate group. “Research has shown that many of the chronic diseases faced by this age group are preventable through diet and physical activity.”

More information about the multistate research project is available at

The research project 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.