Georgia is 33rd in obesity


Obesity Initiative at UGA

More and more adults in Georgia are becoming obese, according to a state-by-state health report card published in December 2014.

The state now ranks 33rd in obesity, three spots down from where it was in 2013, according to the report published by America’s Health Rankings.

The adult obesity rate in Georgia increased from 29.1 percent in 2013 to 30.3 percent in 2014. By comparison, about 21 percent of adults are now obese in Colorado, the least obese state in the country.

The rate has slowly increased over the past 10 years. In 1994, about 13 percent of adults in Georgia were obese.

This trend is also seen nationally. In 2014, 29.4 percent of adults were obese, up from 27.6 percent in 2013. Ten years earlier, just 13.7 percent of adults were obese.

The number of adults with diabetes in Georgia also increased, with the state slipping down the ranks from 28th to the 37th in the last year.

Overall, Georgia is still ranked the 38th   healthiest state in the country. This is the second year in a row that Georgia’s held this spot. In 2012, it was ranked 39th.

Hawaii led the pack as the healthiest state in the U.S., while Mississippi brought up the rear at No. 50, both for the third year in a row.

The report also listed each state’s strengths and challenges. In 2014, Georgia’s strong points were low rates of binge drinking, drug deaths and occupational fatalities.

However, the state also had a low high school graduation rate, a high number of babies with low birth weights and a limited availability of dentists.

The state’s numbers are not surprising, said UGA’s Marsha Davis, associate professor of health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health, to Georgia Health News. Health outcomes in Georgia are affected by other factors like high school education rates and poverty.

“Education, income and access to health care drive our health outcomes,” Davis told GHN. “Improving education will improve our health.”

UGA’s Caree Cotwright focuses on childhood obesity


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Many different ingredients go into the unpalatable problem of childhood obesity.

Caree Cotwright, an assistant professor of foods and nutrition at UGA, delved into this problem with the more than 50 people who attended an Athens Science Café in October.

Cotwright started the evening off with a performance of “What’s Best 4 Me,” a rap she wrote to teach children about healthy eating and exercise. Audiences clapped and stomped, as they sang along to the refrain, “Eating good in the neighborhood, and making healthy choices like I know I should.”

After getting the audience warmed-up, Cotwright showed two videos that tackled obesity differently: “Rewind the Future”  by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), which uses shock value to deliver its message, and “Starting Early”  a video by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which shows how preschoolers are bringing healthy habits home after learning about them in school.

One audience member questioned the CHOA approach of using shock value to influence people to eat healthier. Another said he was encouraged by the CDC video, which showed how kids could impact their home life.

Cotwright said that, while she usually goes for more positive ways of getting the message across, she does appreciate how scare tactics get people talking. CHOA, she said, “wanted people not to be afraid to say this is a problem we need to address because sometimes we kind of tiptoe around it.”

She says that while it’s still unclear which of the two methods is more effective, it’s important to realize that different messages reach different people.

Then Cotwright guided the conversation through topics ranging from genetics and gardening to the role of schools as they relate to childhood nutrition.

One person asked if people are born with a “sweet tooth” or a “fat tooth.”

Cotwright said there is evidence that both genetics and behavior play into a person’s risk of getting a disease, but nothing is conclusive. However, she said, there are people who want to eat more.

“I say that I have the ’I love to eat’ gene, but I also love to fit in my jeans,” Cotwright said to audience laughter. “So I have to curb that.”

Gardening can also affect what children want to eat. She said kids need to know that produce does not come from Aisle 6 of the supermarket.

Cotwright said gardening helps children increase their love for fruits and vegetables because it gives them a sense of ownership, making it more likely that they’ll want to eat them.

Schools also play a big part in how children view food. Children eat a lot of their meals in schools, so officials have to think about what they serve, Cotwright said.

She said teachers and parents also have to be aware of local school wellness policies and be role models for children. Each agency participating in the National School Lunch Program is required to have a school wellness policy that aims to promote students’ health and nutrition.

For example, instead of serving sweets on a child’s birthday, teachers could have “healthy celebrations,” such as reading a child’s favorite book.

Cotwright noted several UGA programs that are aimed at curbing childhood obesity. For example, in Colquitt County, children are taught healthy eating habits and physical activity, and encouraged to share what they’ve learned with their families and the community.

“Don’t ever underestimate the power of the child in this fight against childhood obesity,” Cotwright said.

Closer to home, a multidisciplinary after-school enrichment program in Clarke County elementary schools aims to improve math and reading ability through increased physical activity. A partnership between UGA and the Clarke County School District, the program involves 60 children in two elementary schools.

The South has the highest rates of obesity in America, said Cotwright. In Georgia, 30 percent of adults, and about 13 percent of children are obese. Cotwroght also noted that overweight preschoolers are five times more likely to be overweight as adults than children within the normal weight range.

”That’s definitely something we have to conquer,” she said.

But there are strides, she said. Childhood obesity rates have slightly decreased among preschoolers from low-income families.

“If we can do it there, we can do it all across the board,” Cotwright said. “We’re just going to have to work together.”

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.

After-School Program to Boost Learning



ChaseSt_pal_program-230x127A multidisciplinary team of University of Georgia faculty is partnering with the Clarke County School District is providing a new after-school enrichment program aimed at improving the children’s health and stimulate their learning in reading and mathematics.

The program currently serves about 60 children in two elementary schools.

“We are bringing together UGA teacher educators, health promotion and kinesiology professors with Clarke County School administrators, staff and parents to provide a hands-on, engaging after-school program that will address the challenges faced by children,” said Phillip Tomporowski, a professor of kinesiology in the College of Education.

The Physical Activity and Learning program is funded by a five-year, $666,193 federal grant from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, administered by the Georgia Department of Education.

The new after-school program is the culmination of more than a decade of research that shows that children’s increased physical activity can lead to higher academic achievement. The methods central to the Physical Activity and Learning program are described in the soon-to-be-released book, “Enhancing Children’s Cognition with Physical Activity Games,” written by Tomporowski and McCullick, who are both participating faculty in UGA’s Obesity Initiative.