Category: Obesity Initiative at UGA

The genetics of obesity-related inflammation


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Not all fat is made the same. Scientists have observed that fat cells in an obese person produce more molecules called adipokines, which catch the attention of the body’s immune system, causing them to invade fatty tissues.

The flood of immune cells normally reserved for fighting infection can lead to disease-causing inflammation and the kinds of abnormal cell growth that causes cancer. But it’s difficult to study this phenomenon, because scientists don’t have an easy way to separate fat cells from other cell types and study them in the lab.

Now, thanks in part to a $670,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of Georgia, Emory University and Abeome Corp. are working on a new method to isolate these troublesome fat cells and analyze the genetic changes in obese fat that may contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other obesity-related diseases.

“It’s very clear that an obese individual’s fat has been reprogrammed in a way that’s quite pathological,” said Richard Meagher, Distinguished Research Professor of Genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project. “And the trouble is that even if you start to lose weight, these cells remain reprogrammed, so we’re trying to find ways to change that.”

A single fat sample contains a variety of cell types normally found in the human body, which can interfere with tests designed to analyze the tissue.

Meagher and his colleagues are exploring a technique known as “capture by nuclear antibody,” or CANA, which uses specially designed antibodies to locate the nuclei from specific cell types and pull them away from the otherwise garbled mess of cells.

“Fat cells are big and clumsy, and if you isolate them and let them sit in a tube for an hour, a little while later it looks like butter is coating the edge of the tube because they are all breaking open and the fat is sticking to the sides of the glass,” Meagher said. “We started thinking of ways to get around all these problems so we can analyze the cell types.”

The technology targets the nucleus of cells, where important genetic instructions are stored. The surface of each nucleus is coated with proteins called antigens, and each antibody their laboratory creates will be designed to recognize a specific antigen.

He hopes to identify antibodies that can distinguish between different kinds of fat cells and isolate them. He will then analyze the DNA from cells to see what changes have led to an increase in inflammation.

“It’s much more like a science fiction movie than people imagine,” Meagher said. “These inflammatory cells actually crawl into fat and the fat transfers inflammatory signals through the blood to the rest of the body.”

His laboratory is teaming up with Abeome, a biotech company founded by Meagher and housed in UGA’s Georgia BioBusiness Center, to create hundreds of different antibodies that can potentially target unique antigens on the fat nuclei.

One day, Meagher hopes to use this technology to develop clinical diagnostics and drug therapies that target specific fat cells.

“If we start treating people, we need some way to see what has happened, how to reprogram the cells back to where we’d like them to be,” Meagher said. “We don’t have a way to measure that because we don’t know what’s actually wrong yet, so understanding the reprogramming that has occurred is a big part of our project.”

The research project is supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the National Institutes of Health under award number 1R01DK100392-01A1.

UGA researchers share perspectives on obesity


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Researchers at the University of Georgia debated the causes of obesity at this semester’s Issues in Information panel, attended by about 30 students at the Zell B. Miller Learning Center.

As reported in the Red and Black, panelists Mary Ann Johnson, Louise Wicker and Ellen Evans tackled topics like the taste and cost of food, exercise and the American diet.

While top researchers say Americans ate the healthiest just after World War II, Wicker believes that, for a variety of reasons, including food safety, the healthiest diet can be found right now.

But that’s not to say we are stocking our refrigerators with the healthiest food. Taste highly influences the kinds of food people buy. Cost and convenience also factor into what eventually goes in a shopping cart.

However, not all is lost. While Johnson says unhealthier options tend to be cheaper, there are affordable healthy foods.

The panelists also discussed how the lack of physical activity contributes to obesity. Nowadays, people mostly remain sedentary and have to make themselves move. Wicker says Americans need to change the way they think about movement. Exercise not only helps keep weight down, but it also helps keep diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes at bay.

Plus, it just makes people feel better.

Pets Gain Pounds, Just Like Their People


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Veterinarians and animal researchers are seeing an alarming number of overweight pets and are advising owners to take extra steps to keep their pets healthy, Meanwhile, a new group of specialists in Athens is becoming concerned about obesity and unhealthy numbers on the scale.

In a special issue on fitness and health, the Athens Flagpole reports that pets are not only getting fatter, but their fitness levels are suffering, along with their health.

“The trend we’ve been seeing is that as people develop more obesity, pets are, too,” says Cindi Ward, chief medical officer of the University of Georgia’s Small Animal Hospital. “Pets mimic our activity levels, because they live the lives we live.

Read more.


Play and Exercise Help Build Brains in Clarke County Public Schools


Obesity Initiative at UGA

University of Georgia researchers are looking at how game playing can increase academic performance.

An article in  Athens’ weekly Flagpole describes how UGA researchers are working with students at Chase Street and Fowler Drive elementary schools to improve academic performance through exercise that includes making decisions, creating strategies and problem solving.

“Adults may be able to run on a treadmill for 45 minutes, but kids don’t want to do that,” McCullick says. “If you want to help them be motivated to exercise, you have to do something they enjoy and feel comfortable doing.”

UGA kinesiology professors Bryan McCullick and Phil Tomporowski have researched the links between physical activity and academic achievement for more than a decade. They developed the physical activity games to build children’s confidence and get them moving outside of recess time.

Read more.

UGA Scores at SEC Symposium


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Postdoctoral student Colette Miller and graduate student Parisa Darkhal were award winners at the poster competition that was part of this year’s SEC Symposium, “Prevention of Obesity: Overcoming a 21st Century Public Health Challenge,” held in Atlanta in September.

The two were among six students selected from more than 80 entries, who were awarded honors for their poster presentations.

Miller won the first place award in the postdoctoral student poster competition for her poster, “Efficacy of a dietary phytochemical blend on preventing lipid-induced hepatotoxicity,”  which is based on research performed in her doctoral studies under the direction of the late Clifton A. Baile, who began the Obesity Initiative at UGA.

Miller now conducts research on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and technologies relating to brown adipose tissue under the direction of Rich Meagher, Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Genetics, and on nutrition and aging with Mary Ann Johnson, Bill and June Flatt Professor in Foods and Nutrition, College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

“I enjoyed the comprehensive discussion of obesity, which included a transition from basic science to applied nutrition and exercise interventions to prevent obesity,” said Miller. “It was great to be in such a small conference with well-known obesity experts.”

Darkhal won second place in the graduate student division of the poster competition for her poster, “Blocking high fat diet-induced obesity, insulin resistance and fatty liver by over-expression of IL-13 gene in mice.” Dharkal conducts research in the lab under Dexi Liu,  department head, Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences,  College of Pharmacy.

Johnson said that in addition to providing students and postdocs with valuable feedback on their research, “small, welcoming environments like the SEC Symposium help young scientists meet established investigators.”

This year, members of UGA’s Obesity Initiative were featured panelists in each of the SEC Symposium’s eight sessions, which covered the topic of obesity prevention, from genetics and physiology to early influences and workplace strategies to technology and media-based approaches and community actions to promote energy balance.

The SEC Symposium, which is attended by faculty, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students, and staff from all 14 SEC schools, had  364 registrants, including 50 from UGA.  UGA was represented by faculty and staff from College of Family and Consumer Sciences, College of Public Health,  College of Education, College of Pharmacy, College of Veterinary Medicine, and Grady College.


“Freshman 15″ More Like 3.5, Not Just for College Students


Obesity Initiative at UGA

College students may not gain the much-dreaded “freshman 15″ but they do gain weight during their years in school, according to a UGA study.
As reported by Reuters Health, researchers found that young adults gained an average of about 3.5 pounds (about 1.6 kg) over their college careers with a relatively small gain during the first year.
“Everyone puts so much emphasis on at first year of college,” said Michael Fedewa, a graduate research assistant in the department of kinesiology, College of Education, and lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Fedewa said the change in weight and body fat during college students’ first year continues on, but the same weight gain also is observed among young adults not in college.

Campers Learn Health Eating Habits


Activities, Obesity Initiative at UGA, Outreach

Health-Matters-7-2014-Columns-3Spinach artichoke dip with multigrain bread, corn salad with lime vinaigrette, taco roll ups and fruit kabobs are not teenagers’ usual lunch fare. But thanks to a new summer day camp called Health Matters, Athens-Clarke County teens and their parents now have a taste for healthy and nutritious foods.

As part of the ongoing effort to encourage healthier lifestyles among local residents, UGA Extension partnered with Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services and Athens Regional Health System to coordinate the camp this summer.

The program, which ran for six weeks, addressed a host of health and nutrition topics facing teens and adults alike.

The camp promoted different types of healthful food options and physical activities to children 11 to 14 to help them take responsibility for their own nutrition and fitness.

“We wanted to show campers you can incorporate physical activity and good eating habits into your routine in ways that are fun,” said Leslie Trier, program specialist with Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services. “An active lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean that you play a competitive sport or that you follow a strict diet, although it can include those things.”

The UGA Obesity Initiative pledged five tuition scholarships to attend the Health Matters Camp.

“These funds made it possible to recruit at-risk youth who could not afford the registration fees and otherwise would not have benefited from the program,” said Judy Hibbs, UGA Obesity Initiative member and Extension coordinator.

Athens Regional Health System matched the UGA Obesity Initiative’s contribution, totaling 10 scholarships.

Physical activities included different types of team and individual sports ranging from volleyball and tennis to yoga and swimming.

In the classroom, campers learned about portion size, food safety and how to read food labels among other things. The group took field trips to local eateries, where they learned how to make sensible menu choices.

Education extended to parents who attended weekly classes addressing topics such as cost-effective meal preparation and quick and easy nutritional foods.

View Columns article here.

Help Georgia Get Physical


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Are you willing to help combat obesity in Georgia? University of Georgia Extension needs interested Georgians to test the new Walk Georgia website by registering for the program and logging physical activity online.

Walk Georgia is a Web-based program offered with no registration cost to all Georgians. As a part of UGA Extension, the program is based in communities across Georgia. Extension agents and program staff throughout the state plan community events, meet residents in person and provide incentives in their counties.

Pilot session participants can register for the testing phase of the new Walk Georgia website at and begin tracking their physical activity data online. Participants can create and join groups, or join as an individual. Customizable sessions and goals will be available soon.

A $1 million, three-year grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation allowed for a complete renovation of the Walk Georgia website and the improved program offerings. Goals of this better equipped Walk Georgia program include reaching 100,000 Georgians and decreasing obesity by 5 percent in all Georgia counties over the next three years.

Through the new Walk Georgia website, participants can log on and track their physical activity year-round. The website now scales to mobile devices and will be integrated with popular social media outlets.

Improvements to the Walk Georgia system also make it better suited as a worksite wellness program. Walk Georgia is also being adapted for classroom use. Schools, districts and entire systems can participate in Walk Georgia; competition between classes, grades or schools can be enabled by teachers simply logging aggregate activity data for their class. Walk Georgia-based lesson plans will be available for elementary school teachers this year.

Willing participants in the website’s testing phase are asked to log on to, create an account and begin logging their activity. Sign up for the weekly Walk Georgia newsletter during the registration process or visit the daily blog at to keep track of the pilot’s progress. Email questions and feedback to

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More than information


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane /

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane /

From cutting carbs to reducing sodium, weight loss tips are plentiful in the media. Even tips based on research studies often appear to contradict the findings of other studies. With an abundance of obesity research, cutting through the noise to help reduce obesity can be challenging for those involved in health communication. Ultimately, helping people lose weight may be more about helping them change their habits than simply providing them with information, according to experts involved with UGA’s Obesity Initiative.

“I think a lot of times people would like to believe if I just tell you how many calories you’re consuming … that in and of itself will help people interested in losing weight,” said Glen Nowak, who is a professor and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It’s much more difficult than that.”

Effective health communications involves helping people change their lifestyle. Experts say the best combination for losing weight is still counting calories and exercising. But to encourage people to adopt these behaviors, communication efforts have to call attention to rewards or incentives, according to Nowak. For people to alter their habits, they often have to recognize what they are going to gain from the change.

Nowak co-leads the UGA Obesity Initiative’s Persuasive Health and Marketing Communication Team, along with Karen King, who is the Jim Kennedy Professor of New Media in UGA’s Grady College. The team hopes to collaborate with others involved in obesity research and outreach to help achieve this behavior change.

While health communications alone is not enough to combat obesity, it is still a vital part of interventions, according to Nowak.

“You really do need good communications to get people’s attention, to get them to do something,” Nowak said.