Food rules or free-for-all: helping children develop a healthy relationship with food


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of Iamnee /

Image courtesy of Iamnee /

Tight control over snacks can make kids want them more, according to a study by UGA foods and nutrition professor Leann Birch, which was featured last month in The New York Times. For parents, finding the right balance between structure and choice could be important to ensuring their children have a healthy relationship with food.

All children in the study were more attracted to snacks that were typically prohibited than snacks that were made easily accessible. But the forbidden snacks were even more enticing for some of the kids, specifically those that were found to be “reactive eaters,” or highly motivated by food, in another task. These children ate more of the prohibited snacks when they were made available, according to the Times article.

The next step in this research is to determine how much freedom parents should give their kids when it comes to eating, Birch explained in a follow-up interview. The answer may depend on how naturally reactive to food the child is.

Birch, who conducted the research while on faculty at Penn State, said her colleagues are currently testing how different parenting approaches affect kids’ attraction to food. She thinks parenting principles from other areas of psychology, which suggest balancing structure and freedom, may apply.

“Parents can provide structure for children by choosing the foods available to them and providing routines related to the timing of meals and snacks,” said Birch, who is a member of UGA’s Obesity Initiative. “Within that structure, parents can allow children to make all the choices about whether and how much to eat.”

Check out the Times article for more tips from the expert.

Not burgers, but pounds


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of khunaspix/

Image courtesy of khunaspix/

Eating burgers over broccoli may not cause you to have cancer, but if your diet leads to obesity, there’s more cause for concern. Many connections between specific foods and cancer prevention have been called into question in recent years, according to a New York Times article published earlier this week. Controlling obesity, on the other hand, appears to be more important.

Obesity has been associated with a higher risk for a variety of cancers, including cancers of the colon, esophagus, gallbladder, kidney, pancreas, uterus and breast, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Around one in four new cancers in men and one in seven new cancers in women were attributed to obesity in 2007, according to one study cited by the NCI.

Recent reports suggest more connections between various cancers and obesity. In March, a USA Today article reported findings associating excess weight with ovarian cancer for the first time. This month, LiveScience cited another study connecting obesity to a specific type of breast cancer.

The benefits of a healthy weight are greater for reducing the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, medical oncologist Alexi Wright told USA Today. The NCI also notes that much of the evidence for the connection between obesity and cancer comes from observational studies, meaning it’s harder to tell whether other factors are to blame for cancer development.

Nonetheless, if you’re hoping to ward off the disease, you might be better off focusing on staying fit rather than eating a specific “superfood.”

Furthering fitness in South Georgia


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of federico stevanin/

Image courtesy of federico stevanin/

Community leaders are making efforts to promote health in one of Georgia’s most obese counties – Burke County – according to an article published last week in The Red & Black.

Burke County has an obesity rate of 36 percent, and 31 percent of its residents aren’t physically active, according to this year’s County Health Rankings. But efforts are being made to encourage exercise.

The article tells the story of Kyleigh Egan and her family, who started running and walking together after Kyleigh participated in a youth fitness program called Girls on the Run. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service in Burke County brought the international after-school program to the area.

Located in Southeast Georgia on the South Carolina border, Burke is ranked 145 out of Georgia’s 159 counties for health outcomes, a measure of length of life and quality of life used by the County Health Rankings. Surrounding counties, such as Jenkins and Richmond, have similar low rankings at 142 and 135, respectively. Some of the top preventable causes of death are related to obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Leaders of the University of Georgia Obesity Initiative hope to partner with extension offices in the future to reduce obesity in South Georgia and throughout the state, as the Red & Black article explains.

UGA researchers have already worked with another South Georgia community, Colquitt County, to promote the use of walking trails and farmers markets.

“What we’re hoping will happen is that, as we get things on the ground that are successful, those things will diffuse across the state,” said Debbie Murray, co-chair of the Obesity Initiative’s Community Health Team, in The Red & Black’s article.

For more on obesity in Georgia counties, check out the previous article in The Red & Black’s “Weigh down South” series.


Go local: community leaders key to decreasing obesity in Georgia


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of koratmember/

Image courtesy of koratmember/

The obesity challenge is a statewide problem, but it requires local solutions.

The UGA Obesity Initiative has been involved in efforts to decrease obesity in Georgia’s Clarke County and Colquitt County. Gaining the support of local leaders was crucial to these efforts, UGA’s Debbie Murray told the Red & Black in an article published last week. Murray co-chairs the initiative’s Community Health Team.

“You start with those champions in that community,” Murray said in the article. “When you have some of those champions who really take on the issue, then that helps build the capacity because they bring people along with them.”

While attempts are being made to curb obesity in these counties, much work is left to be done in communities across the state. The Red & Black article tells the story of Terrell County, which has the highest percentage of obese adults in the state. Though the problem is complex, the article does provide hope, suggesting ways local community and business leaders might address the obesity issue.

One possibility the article doesn’t mention is encouraging involvement in existing statewide programs for healthy living, such as WalkGeorgia, a fitness program sponsored by UGA Cooperative Extension. While a single program can’t solve the issue for a community, it can be a step in the right direction.

To find out more about obesity and well-being in your community, find your county on the County Health Rankings map, created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Obesity rates in young children down …. somewhat


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Boy eating burger; free but publish attribution;  image courtesy of  ID-100176661The rate of obesity in young U.S. children has fallen 43 percent in the last decade, according to reports last week by the New York Times, the Washington Post and a variety of other outlets.

That’s encouraging news for a country making efforts to reduce childhood obesity through programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

However, as this Slate article notes, the 43 percent figure is a little misleading.

The figure comes from a study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers that was published last week.

The data show that the obesity rate for 2-to-5-year-old children in the U.S. decreased from 14 percent in 2003-2004 to slightly over 8 percent in 2011-2012.

That’s a change of only 6 percentage points, but a relative change of 43 percent, as Slate explains. In other words, 14 percent is 43 percent greater than 8 percent. The difference isn’t quite as striking as last week’s headlines made it seem.

On a more encouraging note, the same data suggest the overall prevalence of obesity in the U.S. didn’t increase over the last ten years, so that’s something. Obesity rates were 17 percent in youth and 35 percent in adults in 2011-2012, which is not significantly different from 2003-2004 data.

The takeaway? Keep moving, America. (And check out this video of the President and Vice President doing a White House workout of their own).


Trotting with the Dawgs


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Logo courtesy of UGA Alumni Association

Logo courtesy of UGA Alumni Association

Winter may have meant less exercise for some, but with spring around the corner, a 5K may be just the way to get moving again.

UGA alumni and friends will pound the pavement together during the Seventh Annual Dawg Trot 5K on Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8 a.m.

Runners and walkers will follow the route across the University of Georgia campus from Stegeman Coliseum up to Baldwin Street and back down to the Dan Magill Tennis Complex. The run is an official Run & See Georgia Grand Prix race, so runners can use their time from the Dawg Trot to qualify for an earlier start time at races around U.S., including Atlanta’s own Peachtree Road Race.

Competitive participants can also vie for overall and age-group-specific awards. Kids six and under can join in the fun for free with ­­the Kids Fun Run, which will take place prior to the 5K, at 7:30 a.m.

The run is sponsored by the UGA Alumni Association and is an official event of Dawgs on the Move, an initiative that supports UGA’s Obesity Initiative by encouraging UGA Alumni and friends to be active.

Early registration closes at midnight on Friday, March 7, and online registration closes at midnight on Thursday, March 13.

For more information or to register for the race, check out

Walk Georgia is back


Obesity Initiative at UGA

walkGeorgiaSmallBannerIf you missed the chance to traverse the state last fall, join your fellow Georgians in tracking your weekly workouts this spring.

Walk Georgia is a fitness program sponsored by UGA Cooperative Extension. Individuals or four-person teams log their physical activity online for 12 weeks. The time spent burning energy is translated into miles “walked” across the state. As they add miles, exercisers travel across a virtual map of Georgia and learn interesting facts about the different counties they pass through.

The goal for all participants is to reach 15 miles per week. People with a competitive streak can also see how they stack up against other walkers. Last fall the WalkGeorgia blog posted the leading individuals and teams for each week. The blog also featured places where Georgians could enjoy being active, such as High Falls State Park.

Registration for the upcoming session starts February 1 and lasts until March 10. Participants will then track their activity from February 2 to April 26. Head over to for more details.

Virus may play role in obesity and bone loss


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

A sinister virus is creeping up to young, impressionable cells and influencing them to turn into insidious globs of fat.

Or so scientists think.

The idea that viruses are invading cells and making people fat is controversial. Researchers from the University of Georgia (UGA) are adding to a growing pile of evidence linking a virus called adenovirus 36 (Ad36) to obesity in humans.

A previous post detailed some of this research.  Earlier this year, the researchers published one study on Ad36, obesity and bone strength in Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

The researchers reported that female obese teenagers were more likely to have antibodies against Ad36 than their normal weight counterparts. The antibodies show that the person was previously infected with the virus. In addition, obese teens with Ad36 antibodies had weaker and more brittle bones than obese teens without the antibody.

“The big picture when we had this idea [was] to prove solidly that adenovirus has an effect on obesity in humans,” said Srujana Rayalam, one of the co-authors of the study.

However, Rayalam said that the group still needs to do more studies, preferably in people of different ages and genders to truly say that bone loss and weakness in obese individuals is caused by Ad36.

Ad36 belongs to a family of adenoviruses that cause pinkeye, the common cold, gastroenteritis and other human miseries.

It is still unclear how Ad36 is involved in bone and obesity. Emma Laing, lead author of the study, thinks bone loss and weakness is due to Ad36 attacking a group of cells called mesenchymal stem cells. These stem cells are highly suggestible and have the potential to mature into bone, muscle or fat. Ad36 is thought to steer the stem cells away from a life in bone and force them to become fat instead.

A 2012 study on the same line of cells supports this idea. Researchers infected human stem cells with Ad36 and another adenovirus, Ad2. Only stem cells infected with Ad36 stored fat.

The link between Ad36 and obesity is clear in animals.

After being deliberately infected with the virus, mice, chickens and marmosets fattened up.

However, the connection is harder to demonstrate in humans. It would be unethical, of course, for researchers to infect humans with a virus to see if they gain weight.

Instead, scientists have used antibody tests to look back in time. Like the UGA researchers, others have tested blood from obese and non-obese people to see if they had been exposed to Ad36 in the past and had antibodies against it.

The first definitive link between fat and Ad36 in humans came in 2005. A group of scientists tested four different viruses and found Ad36 to be the only virus associated with increased weight.

“There is little convincing data [that viruses cause obesity],” said Ralph Tripp, the virologist for the UGA group. “However, we have made a strong association.”

In the future, Rayalam says that their study needs to be repeated at least one more time, especially to look at effects in older adults.

“Because with aging and adiposity, what you see is bone loss,” she said. “We have to see whether with adiposity and Ad36, [we] still have a positive correlation in late adults.”

Eventually, the group hopes to develop a vaccine against Ad36 to stop the production of more fat cells and keep bones strong. Tripp thinks that day will come, though it won’t be tomorrow.

“I think the future is very close for showing this academically; however, it will be a decade away from FDA approval due to compliance and related issues commonly associated with vaccinology,” he said.

The above post is a guest post by Hyacinth Empinado, a graduate student in UGA’s Health and Medical Journalism Program.

Researchers talk about weight loss in older people at Obesity Week 2013


Obesity Initiative at UGA

obesity week logo-2013_r02

The following post continues Weighing In’s coverage of Obesity Week 2013. It was contributed by Jing Hong, a University of Georgia graduate student the in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, who attended the Obesity Week 2013 conference.

The prevalence of obesity in the United States is an issue in all age groups, including older people, who may already have existing medical problems. When overweight, older people also have an increased risk of having diabetes and heart disease. However, intentional weight loss by older people can have medical issues of its own.

Limited evidence suggests that intentional weight loss does not increase risk of mortality, but it could result in the loss of spine and hip bone mineral density, according to lecture given by Kristen Beavers at the Obesity Week 2013 conference last month.

Beavers, an assistant visiting professor at Wake Forest University, said people will also lose a certain amount of lean mass during intentional weight loss. And if people regain their weight afterwards, they regain less lean mass than they lost.

Fortunately, older people can lose weight and maintain their healthy weight status successfully.

“Old people are among people most likely to lose weight and keep it off,” said Mary Ann Johnson, a University of Georgia (UGA) foods and nutrition professor, referencing a talk by Johns Hopkins researcher Lawrence Appel she heard at the Obesity Week 2013 conference.

Johnson suggested that older people watch their diet and lead a healthy lifestyle. “They need to keep eating healthy, keep exercising, weigh themselves at least twice a week,” Johnson said.

While older people may be concerned about their health, they may also worry about their ability to eat well on a budget, as many of them are nearly or already retired.

Kevin McCully, a UGA professor of kinesiology suggested inexpensive but healthy foods, such as vegetable salad, over less healthy options, such as fried chicken. “Eat more vegetables, don’t put too much sauce in [your food], don’t put too much sugar in it,” McCully said.

More research on weight loss still needs to be done. A new study through UGA’s Obesity Initiative will focus on helping a hundred overweight women age 50 or older to lose weight. The program includes a six-month period of weight loss and weight maintenance afterwards. Johnson said the project will begin in early 2014.

Obesity Week Keynote Highlights Fat Cell Browning


Obesity Initiative at UGA

obesity week logo-2013_r02

Fat, exercise and a molecule with a peculiar name took center-stage in the Obesity Week 2013 keynote by Bruce Spiegelman in Atlanta last week. Recent experiments indicate that molecule, called “meteorin-like,” can cause calorie-storing fat to more closely resemble a type of fat that actually burns calories.

The two types of fat are known as “white fat” and “brown fat.”  White fat cells are used to store excess energy, while brown fat cells are used to burn energy for heat. Newborns and small mammals have high amounts of brown fat that help them survive cold temperatures. Recently, researchers have started investigating brown fat as a way to fight obesity. The meteorin-like molecule is a polypeptide, or protein component, that may play a role in the fight.

Muscles release meteorin-like during exercise. Spiegelman showed that injecting the polypeptide into the tail veins of mice causes white fat to become more like brown, heat generating fat.  As a result of the injections, mice use up a lot more energy than usual.

The polypeptide drives the production of two molecules – interleukin 4 (IL4) and interleukin 13 (IL13) – that give rise to white blood cells called M2 macrophages. Unlike “classical” macrophages, which Spiegelman described as “spitting out nasty things,” these cells release anti-inflammatory hormones called catecholamines. These catecholamines act on white fat cells and make them more closely resemble the energy-burning profile of brown fat cells.

The global increase in obesity and Type 2 diabetes underlines the need for multiple therapeutic approaches to these issues. However, it is unlikely that meteorin-like treatments will be available for humans soon. The molecule used in mice was unstable, and its effects were short lived.  But someday, Spiegelman hopes, some variation on the polypeptide with the awkward name will help treat obesity in humans.

Beyond the University of Georgia research projects mentioned in the previous post, the Obesity Week conference included presentations on a variety of topics – from possible causes to new treatments. The above post is a guest post by Hyacinth Empinado, a graduate student in UGA’s Health and Medical Journalism Program, who attended the conference.