(Editor’s Note: The following is the latest in a series of feature stories highlighting Ohio State University South Centers Staff members)
By Bradford Sherman
As he was preparing to sit down for this interview, Dr. Dan Remley made a conscious decision to pass up the Styrofoam coffee cup in favor of a glass mug.
“It is kind of a New Year’s goal of mine,” he revealed. “I think we can all do our little part.”
For 17 years, Remley, an associate professor and field specialist for food, nutrition, and wellness, has led programming at The Ohio State University that has revolved around that same premise – helping people make mindful choices and inspiring internal motivation.
Through programs like Dining with Diabetes, Voices for Food, and HEALth MAPPS, Remley uses those same principles to help educate people on how to manage their chronic illnesses and for disseminating knowledge to help build healthier communities.
“You have to be motivated in order to take care of yourself,” said Remley, who identified “motivation” as a common thread between his programs. “In Extension, we are in a position where we can help people apply information to their lives, and realize why they need to make a change. I think it is really important to help people discover these internal motivations, and answer the question, ‘why would I want to make these changes in my life?’”
Although his appointment is statewide, Remley is based at the South Centers in Piketon, which puts him at ground-zero for one of the unhealthiest areas of the entire state. Pike County ranked as the 87th out of 88 counties in health outcomes (length and quality of life) and was in the bottom 10 for health factors, according to the 2019 report published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin.
It is a region-wide problem with neighboring counties Adams, Jackson, Scioto, Ross, and Highland all landing in the bottom quarter of the overall health rankings. Why is this particular area so unhealthy? Some of it is cultural, such as the popularity of fried foods, but there are larger issues at play as well, according to Remley, such as joblessness leading to a sense of hopelessness, poverty, and rampant drug use.
“Education is really important (to combat these problems), people need to have the skills and the motivation, but they also need to live in environments where they can make healthy choices,” explained Remley. “You have to work at both levels in order to make significant change.”
Two of the programs Remley leads that are specifically aimed at bringing about change in communities are HEALth MAPPS and Voices for Food.
HEALth MAPPS is a community-based research process that makes use of modern technology to help community members become aware of how the features within their community can be helpful or detrimental to residents’ ability to eat healthy and be active.
The process that uses photography, mobile device technology, and residents’ voiced perceptions to address food access, healthy eating, and physical activity. Coordination involves working with community partners, local extension offices, and campus faculty to plan, implement, and evaluate the program.
In Voices For Food, considered by Remley to be his signature program, communities are aided in starting food councils. These councils look at their communities’ food systems, as a whole, and work to bring together partners to make healthy food more accessible and fight food insecurity.
A great example of the work done by food councils is in the area of food pantries. They work with pantries to promote the “choice” method of food distribution, the benefits of nutrition, and encourage the inclusion of offerings suitable to people with chronic illnesses or food allergies.
“About a third of the people who come into food pantries have diabetes or some kind of chronic illness, where they have to watch their diets and try to eat healthy,” said Remley.
“We want to see choice, also because it is a more dignified experience,” Remley stated. “Letting people choose food based on what they need and what they want, instead of just giving them boxes or bags of food they can’t use or don’t want, is a far more efficient way of distributing food.”
Food choice is no more important than in the Dining with Diabetes program, one in which Remley, himself, can relate as a Type 1 diabetic. He has been living with diabetes since the age of 20, and he uses the knowledge he has gained, both personally and professionally, to help other learn to live with the disease.
“I was interested in working with it because of my own experiences. Since I have been living with it, I have a pretty good understanding and can help people make sense of all the overwhelming information they get, especially when they are first diagnosed.”
Dining with Diabetes is a national program spanning 38 states, including Ohio, where there are projected to be 15-20 counties holding classes in 2020. Remley serves as the chairperson of the national group; in this role, he helps develop the curriculum, develop evaluations, and train educators to deliver the programming.
"Many of the people in our classes have just recently been diagnosed with diabetes, so they really don’t know how to manage their blood sugar,” he explained. “When they come to our classes, we give them a basic understanding of diabetes, and also show them healthy ways to prepare main dishes, sides, and desserts that are low carb, low sodium, and low fat.
“We try to help them understand the idea of meal planning, carb counting, and how food affects their blood sugars. Four sessions long. A lot of social learning going on, they learn from each other.
The long-term complications of unmanaged blood sugar are serious and can include eye diseases, kidney problems, stroke, heart disease, and problems with the nervous system.
In addition to eating properly, staying active is also a key component of proper diabetes management. In his free time, Remley practices what he preaches by staying fit through activities like hiking, and playing tennis and pickle ball.
And much like his programs aim to accomplish, Remley wants to do his part to make his community a little healthier and a better place to live. Every journey begins with a single step, or in this case, the passing up of a single Styrofoam cup.
“I am also interested in sustainability and helping people think about how we can lessen our footprint. Going back to the Styrofoam cup – that is something I am trying to do,” he said.
“If we can we lessen our footprint, we can ensure that our kids and grandkids inherit a world where they can have a higher quality of life.”
Remley earned a bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Miami (OH) University and received his master’s in Science and Public Health from Alabama Birmingham. He earned his PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Kentucky. He worked at the University of Missouri before coming to The Ohio State University in 2002.
Remley resides in Chillicothe with his wife, Heather, and their two youngest children, Allison and Matthew. Their oldest daughter Katie is attending Ohio University.