The United States has an obesity epidemic, and the impact is expanding.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, approximately 40 percent of American adults are obese. That struggle comes with increased risks for a host of illnesses, and even with a $3 billion diet industry, the price tag of obesity-related medical care weighs in at $147 billion to $210 billion annually.
How do we address this thorny issue that can lead to lifelong health problems, reduced work capacity, and even death? “Evidence shows it’s hard to alter obesity once it exists,” says Human Development and Family Studies Professor Esther Leerkes. So how do we intervene before the scales tip too far?
Much of existing research focuses on preschool-aged children and older, but that, Leerkes says, may be too late. Almost 40 percent of American children between the ages of 2 and 5 are already overweight or obese, explains Nutrition’s Dr. Lenka Shriver. By their teenage years, they can develop hypertension and insulin resistance, increasing their heart disease and diabetes risks.
For some people, the foundation for weight gain could be laid even before birth.
That’s why a group of UNCG researchers, with a $2.8 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, are launching a study that will follow mothers and their children from the third trimester of pregnancy to age two.
The project is among the first to simultaneously examine the biological, psychological, and social factors that could raise obesity risk, from infancy through toddlerhood, says Leerkes’ departmental colleague Dr. Susan Calkins. A multidisciplinary collaboration of researchers from the Departments of Human Development and Family Studies, Kinesiology, and Nutrition made the complex study possible.