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Priscilla Connors: Nutritionist with plenty of food for thought

Priscilla Connors knows that education could be the greatest weapon in the war on childhood obesity.

Connors, an assistant professor of merchandising and hospitality management, is an expert in the area of food safety and nutrition.

"I'm interested in our foods and what we do with them," she says. Connors studies the ways that people behave toward food and how that affects their health. One example of this is called the "switching mechanism."

"If I am bored with whatever I am eating, I can easily switch to another food because there are so many readily available choices," Connors says. "In the past, when there was not so much variety, the monotony of a single food was one thing that tended to turn off the impulse to keep eating and helped prevent obesity."

Connors became intrigued by nutrition when writing her dissertation, a study of milk handling practices in elementary schools, at Texas Woman's University. Before seeking her doctorate, Connors worked as a school lunch director, and she later became a professor at Syracuse University. She's been at UNT for three years and teaches principles of nutrition while maintaining her status as a licensed dietician.

Recently, Connors worked in conjunction with Denton Community Hospital on a study designed to provide information of patient acceptance of different menu items by measuring how much of the food the patients actually ate.

In addition, she is working on a project with the Texas Department of Human Services called the "Healthy School Meals Initiative." This state program follows mandates set by the U.S. Congress and Department of Agriculture requiring school lunch programs to meet federal standards concerning balanced meals and nutrient requirements. Connors travels all over Texas, visiting private schools and state-run facilities where children are in residence, such as juvenile detention centers and shelters.

Connors is also interested in the National School Lunch program, which provides meals to all students in participating schools and studies the viability and importance of school lunches being served to kids today.

"We live in an era where children often are not getting exposed to well-balanced meals in their homes.," Connors says. "What the schools serve is important because children may be eating two out of three meals at school."

Along with this area of research, Connors wants to become involved in making children aware of the parallel between using food for psychological or emotional reasons and increasing their risks of chronic disease and obesity.

"I hope to do research about eating habits and obesity in children in connection with the increase of Type II diabetes in children. This is a disease that is normally found in middle-aged adults, but is now found among preteens," Connors says.

When she is not working on research or teaching, Connors enjoys nature walks to see wildflowers and identify plants.

As for other hobbies, she says with a smile, "I have three teen-agers."