On the list of undesirable medical conditions, a parasitic worm infection surely ranks fairly high. Although modern pharmaceuticals have made them less of a threat in some areas, these organisms are still a major cause of disease and disability throughout much of the developing world.
But parasites are not all bad, according to new research by a team of scientists now at the University of Georgia, the Harvard School of Public Health, the Université François Rabelais in Tours, France, and the Central South University, Changsha, Hunan, China.
A study published recently in Nature Medicine demonstrates that once inside a host, many parasitic worms secrete a sugar-based anti-inflammatory molecule that might actually help treat metabolic disorders associated with obesity.
“All of the metabolic indicators associated with obesity were restored to normal by giving these mice this sugar conjugate,” said Donald Harn, study co-author who worked on the research while at Harvard School of Public Health and is now Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Infectious Diseases. Harn is also a member of UGA’s Faculty of Infectious Diseases and the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.
“It won’t prevent obesity, but it will help alleviate some of the problems caused by it.”
“Obesity is an inflammatory disease, so we hypothesized that this sugar might have some effect on complications related to it,” said Harn.
A team of researchers led by Rick Lewis, professor of foods and nutrition in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, found that obesity may also be bad for bone health. Overweight people tend to have more muscle surrounding their bones than do their leaner counterparts, leading most researchers to assume that being overweight is good for bone health. But the UGA researchers found that obese people were not making as much bone as they should for the amount of muscle they had.
Lewis says the exact mechanisms by which excess fat hinders bone strength are unclear, but studies of obese rats show that they produce more fat cells in bone marrow and fewer bone cells. Because fat and bone cells derive from the same precursor, it may be that fat-cell production is favored over bone-cell production in obese people as well.
Lewis says, “Childhood obesity could have a significant and long-lasting negative impact on the skeleton.”
From children to adults, Georgians across the state are working toward a healthier lifestyle with the help of a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension fitness program called Walk Georgia. Since the program began in 2008, more than 20,000 participants have logged more than 2.2 million “virtual” miles of physical activity.
The online component of Walk Georgia provides an activity record for individuals or teams of up to four people to keep track of weekly physical activity and time. The activity is recorded and translated into “walked” miles, based on average rigor of the chosen activity and the time spent in activity. A wide range of activities, including aerobics, biking, swimming and even bowling, can be logged. The time spent exercising is translated into walked miles online as members work to travel across the state. The goal is to walk 15 miles per week.
As participants accumulate miles, they navigate a map of Georgia and chart their course to “walk” Georgia, moving virtually throughout the state, and viewing fun facts about each county visited. They also can see how they compare to other individuals throughout the state.
For nearly 15 years, David DeJoy, Mark Wilson and their colleagues in the Workplace Health Group in the College of Public Health have partnered with organizations of nearly all sizes and types—from Dow Chemical Co. to Home Depot Inc. and the Georgia Department of Community Health—on issues related to health and occupational safety. Their studies consistently have shown that employers can improve the health of their staff through programs that encourage healthy eating and physical activity. DeJoy and Wilson understand that employers have limited resources, so their research seeks practical, cost-effective solutions.
In a recent study that involved nearly 1,100 Union-Pacific Corp. employees, researchers found employees who were given counseling about healthy eating and participated in a program where they exercised for 150 minutes per week were able to maintain their weight. Their counterparts in the control group, on the other hand, saw their collective waistlines expand over the four-year study period.
DeJoy concedes that weight maintenance doesn’t sound like a huge win, but he points out that from a population health perspective, simply keeping people from gaining weight can dramatically improve outcomes while reducing health care costs.
“As people are gaining weight, they’re marching toward diabetes,” he said. “If you can get them to flatten that trajectory and maintain their weight, you’re lowering that risk.”
For more than a decade, Mary Ann Johnson and Joan Fischer, professors of foods and nutrition with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, have been exploring the factors that put older adults at risk for obesity and designing and testing interventions to help them lead healthier lives. Working with the Athens Community Council on Aging and senior centers across the state, Johnson found that it is never too late for older adults to improve their health. In one study, a four-month series of classes that included chair exercises and encouraged participants to record their daily steps with a pedometer helped participants increase their physical activity by 26 percent.
As a result of the class, the number of participants reporting good physical function jumped from 17 percent to 25 percent. Another series of classes focused on healthy eating resulted in a 21 percent increase in the number of participants who consumed at least seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Johnson says, “Older people are willing to change; they just need some help, guidance and support.”
Phillip Tomporowski and Bryan McCullick, kinesiology faculty members in UGA’s College of Education, are introducing fun and effective exercise games into the Clarke County after-school program curriculum. Previous research by Tomporowski and colleagues at Georgia Health Sciences University demonstrated the cognitive benefits of vigorous exercise programs among overweight school-age children.
The researchers are helping overcome obstacles such as lack of teacher professional development, as well as inadequate facilities to help teachers motivate children to be physically active.
“With preparation,” says Tomporowski, “after-school teachers can motivate children to be physically active and engage in games that are of the intensity and duration to reap health benefits.”
The University of Georgia Alumni Association is partnering with UGA’s Obesity Initiative to present “Dawgs on the Move,” a program that promotes a healthy lifestyle.
“Dawgs on the Move” is designed to encourage UGA alumni and friends to participate in physical activities-from organized races to family bike rides. The program aims to raise awareness for UGA’s Obesity Initiative, which was launched in January 2012 to address Georgia’s multi-faceted obesity problem through treatment, prevention and research.
On March 16, the Alumni Association will host the Sixth Annual Dawg Trot 5K, a walk, jog or run through the university’s historic campus. Nearly 1,000 people participate every year. An official Run and See Georgia Grand Prix race, Dawg Trot times can be used to qualify for an earlier starting time at the Peachtree Road Race and other official races across the country. For more information on the Dawg Trot, see www.alumni.uga.edu/dawgtrot.
For more information about “Dawgs on the Move,” see the UGA Alumni Association website at www.alumni.uga.edu, or contact Margaret Sullivan, Atlanta programs coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 404/814-8818
In south Georgia’s Colquitt County, Marsha Davis of the College of Public Health and colleagues are sharing information on healthy eating and exercise. They are connecting to the community through a weekly newsletter for parents, family fun nights that are held in partnership with the local YMCA, and promotions of community-wide initiatives such as Farmer’s Markets and walking trails. The researchers use evidence-based practices from some of the major child physical activity and nutrition programs, tailored to the community and delivered in engaging, interactive ways.
“Because obesity is a complex issue, we need to work with, rather than in, the community,” said Davis.
The program in Colquitt County is conducted through the university’s Archway Partnership, which brings university expertise to community identified needs. Pediatricians there have reported seeing elementary school students with high blood pressure, and health officials have seen children with type II diabetes—a disease that was called adult-onset until rising rates of obesity necessitated a name change.
Critics frequently blame processed foods for today’s obesity epidemic. But a writer in The Atlantic offers up a contrary view. In the cover story, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity,” David Freedman argues that the “wholesome-food movement” is unlikely to help most obese Americans, and that Big Food — the food industry — may be the solution. One thing we need, he says, is solid research into less obesogenic, high-mass-appeal foods.
Through its growing sway over health-conscious consumers and policy makers, the wholesome-food movement is impeding the progress of the one segment of the food world that is actually positioned to take effective, near-term steps to reverse the obesity trend: the processed-food industry. Popular food producers, fast-food chains among them, are already applying various tricks and technologies to create less caloric and more satiating versions of their junky fare that nonetheless retain much of the appeal of the originals, and could be induced to go much further. In fact, these roundly demonized companies could do far more for the public’s health in five years than the wholesome-food movement is likely to accomplish in the next 50. But will the wholesome-food advocates let them?
He encourages the advocates of “wholesome foods,” which often are expensive, and their allies, to recognize that such foods are not readily available to many who need them most, and “to start getting behind realistic solutions to the obesity crisis.”
Public schools are “the one place where kids could be guaranteed to get a physical education and some physical activity, says UGA kinesiologist Bryan McCullick. “If you don’t know how to be physically active, you’re not going to go out and be physically active,” he told WSB TV in Atlanta.