U gets grants for obesity research

The University was given $1.7 million for research on how to best conquer obesity.

If obesity rates continue to rise as they have been, experts estimate obesity and its risk factors may become the leading cause of death in Americans.

About 70 percent of American adults are considered overweight or obese by medical standards, and face increased risk of chronic illness and disease as a result.

A number of researchers at the University are making efforts to slow the trend, taking on aspects of obesity ranging from the components of the food we eat to the frequency we eat breakfast.

The Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute awarded three grants to the University on Tuesday, totaling $1.7 million for food science research over the next three years.

Doug Mashek, assistant professor in the food science and nutrition department, received one of these grants for an anti-obesity research project.

Mashek will work with the head of the biochemistry department, David Bernlohr, to identify compounds in foods such as Chinese herbs that “affect our fat tissue in our bodies,” he said.

The goal, Mashek said, would be to learn how to use those compounds to decrease the amount of fatty tissues, or decrease the negative effects of the fat in the body.

Mindy Kurzer, director of the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute, said all three grants will fund interdisciplinary projects.

The institute began as a presidential initiative in 2003, with the intention of acting as an umbrella program for research in food science, nutrition and diet, she said.

The rates of obesity have risen each decade, Kurzer said, and the risks seem to be going up.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity increases the risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, among other diseases and conditions.

The announcement of the grants comes on the tail of the release of a study conducted in the School of Public Health, which addressed the relationship between eating breakfast and weight gain in teenagers.

Mark Pereira, associate professor of epidemiology and community health and co-author of the study, said he and other researchers made use of a database put together by Project Eating Among Teens in the division of epidemiology.

Project EAT followed and surveyed about 2,000 teenagers in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools from 1998 through 2003 and asked questions about dietary and lifestyle habits, he said.

“We took advantage of this great existing database to assess our hypothesis regarding breakfast frequency,” he said.

The study was published in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics.

“Skipping breakfasts is very common in kids,” Pereira said. “We find that those who eat (breakfast) every day over the five years gain less weight, so they are at less risk for obesity.”

“Breakfast Eating and Weight Change in a 5-Year Prospective Analysis of Adolescents” is an observational study based on surveys, and was subjected to two types of analysis, he said.

Pereira called obesity “one of the most significant public health problems in our society.”

Data provided by Boynton Health Service in the fall show that 38 percent of University students are overweight or obese based on their reported body mass indexes.

The data also show that University students reported eating breakfast about 4.4 days each week.

University nutritionist Christine Twait said college is a crucial time for students in terms of body weight and long-term eating habits.

The rates of obesity among children and adolescents are around 15 percent, she said, but when you look at adults, that number jumps to about 65 percent.

“College is definitely a time when we could do great interventions,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than reversing overweight and obesity once it has happened.”