Beauty salons show promise as nutrition promoters

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Advice from a trusted beautician carries a lot of weight.

In fact, a conversation about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables over a haircut or color could help a client take steps to eat better and trim unhealthy pounds, hints a small study conducted among African-American women.

African-American women generally consume fewer fruits and vegetables, get less exercise and drink smaller amounts of water than white women, all of which puts them at a higher risk for obesity and the diseases it can trigger, such as diabetes and heart disease. Community-based approaches have been recommended to address the problem. Beauty salons may be an ideal place to disseminate health information.

“The respect for cosmetologists within the African-American community allows for dialog to flow freely and for all within the salon to share their stories about personal life concerns, including health,” lead researcher Latasha Johnson, who was an undergraduate student at South Carolina State University, Orangeburg, at the time of the study, noted in an email to Reuters Health.

Johnson and her colleagues from South Carolina State and Florida State University, Tallahassee, identified two beauty salons in a rural African-American community of South Carolina. For 6 weeks, the beauty salon-based health intervention program called “Steps for a New You” was provided to select clients in one of the salons. The program includes scripted motivational sessions, informational packets and starter kits of sample items. The other salon carried on as usual.

The study team found that the women who received instruction and materials from a beautician increased their average fruit and vegetable intake from about 2 servings a day, based on a pre-program questionnaire, to 3 and a half a day at the end of the program. Health experts generally recommended at least 5 servings a day of fruits and vegetables.

As expected, clients at the other “control” salon saw no improvements in fruit and vegetable intake.

“I think the beauty salon is a very key venue to reach captive audiences of women,” Dr. Antronette Yancey of the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health. “They tend to serve a particular ethnic group and tailor their services to the needs of that group. This provides an opportunity to ethnically target materials.”

“The study results provide another example of a non-traditional way to reach African-American women and improve their health behaviors,” said Dr. Yvonne Owens Ferguson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and researcher on one of the first beauty salon health promotion programs.

The researchers agree that a larger, longer-term study is needed to confirm the findings. If the program is expanded, Ferguson has some advice from her experiences in North Carolina: “We learned that it is important to involve salon owners, cosmetologists and customers as partners in the development of our research.”

Yancey has also been involved in related projects, and found the most success when lessons were linked to an access point, such as a mammography van parked outside a salon offering information on cancer-screening.

Johnson’s study provided participants with samples of fruits and vegetables. Yancey suggests taking this a step further and having local farmers deliver affordable produce to the salon, something she is trying with one of her own programs.

“It’s not always just the knowledge and desire to access certain types of foods,” she added. “It’s also how the cheap foods are and where they are available.”

SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, June 2010.