Healthy Weight

fruits and vegetables on table

Food insecurity and hunger are risk factors for obesity, a present and growing threat to health worldwide. Research shows that by 2030, an average of 42 percent of Americans will be classified as having obesity and 11 percent will be classified as having severe obesity. Because of our decades-long work in obesity prevention, we have the foundation to radically change those predictions.

To do this, faculty in the School of Public Health Division of Epidemiology & Community Health study the environmental variables that influence behaviors related to obesity. We study multiple levels of influence that are thought to contribute to obesity risk, including

  • policies about food and the built environment
  • transportation policies
  • neighborhood social factors (e.g. income and racial and ethnic disparities),
  • home environment and parenting practices
  • leisure time choices,
  • behavioral and genetic variables, and
  • nutritional epidemiology — the link between diet and prevalent chronic disease.

Our Division’s research supports a panoply of approaches, including detailed dietary analysis, prevention of disordered eating, and investigation of obesity, physical activity, and cancer etiology.

Nutrition Coordinating Center
Lisa Harnack

The Nutrition Coordinating Center (NCC) develops and supports state-of-the-art methods and databases for researchers collecting and analyzing dietary data. The NCC’s flagship product is its Nutrition Data System for Research (NDSR), a software program researchers use to analyze the composition of foods found in recipes and menus, or eaten by study participants. It’s a comprehensive tool used by more than 100 institutions. Read more about the Nutrition Coordinating Center


Obesity prevention center

This center fosters and improves multidisciplinary research into prevention strategies, serves as an educational resource center in the field of obesity prevention and advocates for public policies that address the obesity epidemic.


Eating, activity, weight-related problems across the life course of diverse populations
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer

This program of research (based largely on the history leading Project EAT study) is funded to the Principal Investigator (Dianne Neumark-Sztainer) as an Outstanding Investigator Award. The award provides seven years of funding and promotes innovation through its flexibility. The study aims to identify key factors that influence weight-related problems during the transition from adolescence to adulthood in order to develop innovative, culturally acceptable, and effective interventions for populations in greatest need.

Obesity and other weight-related problems, including poor dietary intake, inadequate physical activity, body dissatisfaction, and disordered eating behaviors are of major public health concern given their high prevalence and serious health consequences. The high prevalence of these problems in young people from low-income and ethnic/racial minority groups is of particular concern and the focus of this program. The goal of this research is to ensure positive weight-related health for all young people — regardless of their backgrounds — with support from their family, friends, schools, worksites and neighborhoods.

Visit the Project EAT website for more information.


Maternal obesity, breast milk composition, and infant growth
Ellen Demerath

The objective of this project is to understand how breast milk is related to mother and infant weight gain and composition. Specifically, the study assess: 1) whether key appetite and satiety regulating hormone levels and adipocytokine levels are altered in the breastmilk of classified as having obesity women, and 2) whether concentrations of these breastmilk factors are associated with the increased rate of adipose tissue gains seen in offspring of classified as having obesity mothers. Additionally, the project will examine modifying effects of gestational weight gain and post-partum weight loss on these outcomes and whether maternal diet and exercise during pregnancy and lactation may alter associations. Read more about this project


Telomere length dynamics in relation to changes in adiposity and metabolic risk
Ellen Demerath

This study examines serial measures of leukocyte telomere length — a biomarker of cellular aging in over 1,700 adults in the Fels Longitudinal Study — to test the cumulative relationship of weight and adiposity gains at different points in the aging life course. Telomerase activity, an enzyme responsible for restoring loss of telomeric DNA, will also be measured in a cross-sectional subset and SNP data will be used to assess genetic associations with telomere length and telomerase activity. Mendelian Randomization and other approaches will be utilized to assess whether identified associations are likely causal.


Public health nutrition training grant
Jamie Stang

The Leadership, Education, and Training Program in Maternal and Child Nutrition Program (LET) offers pre-or postdoctoral fellowships, or sabbatical leaves, to support Registered Dietitians who wish to specialize in the field of maternal and child nutrition.


Dietary approaches to treat multiple sclerosis (MS)-related fatigue study
Lisa Harnack

This study will compare the ability of two popular diets to treat multiple sclerosis-related fatigue. This trial recruits participants with relapsing-remitting MS who experience fatigue and who live within a 500-mile radius of Iowa City, IA.


Effects of subsidies and prohibitions on household nutrition in a food benefit program
Lisa Harnack

This study includes a randomized controlled trial that examines the impact of different types of grocery assistance programs on family nutrition in Minnesota.


The effect of myelin-relevant nutrients in infant formula on brain myelination and cognitive development (CONNECT)
Lisa Harnack

This study evaluates the effect of myelin-relevant nutrients found in infant formula on child neurological development based on food recalls entered into NDSR for nutrient analysis.


Stand and move at work, a group randomized trial
Mark Pereira

Strategies to promote moderate-vigorous physical activity are well-known. However, less is known about strategies to reducing sitting and increase light-intensity physical activity. This project aims to test two interventions in 24 worksites in Arizona and Minnesota (N=720 workers):

  1. The MOVE intervention – a multilevel individual, social, environmental, and organizational worksite intervention targeting increases in light-intensity physical activity, and
  2. The STAND&MOVE intervention – adding sit-stand workstations to the MOVE intervention. This research will provide new evidence-based strategies for improving workers’ health using administrative and environmental tactics including the use of sit-stand workstations.


Healthy eating research: Building evidence to prevent childhood obesity
Melissa Laska

This program supports research on environmental and policy strategies that have the greatest potential to improve healthy eating and weight patterns among children. The study aims to prevent childhood obesity, especially among groups at highest risk for obesity: Black, Latino, American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islander children and children who live in lower-income communities.


Impact of local staple food ordinance on food choices and calories purchased – NIH/NIDDK
Melissa Laska

Increasing the availability of healthy food, particularly in underserved communities, has been identified as a leading strategy for local governments to prevent obesity. However, policy action in this area has been limited. This R01 project will examine the impact of a local policy change that establishes minimum stocking criteria for a wide array of healthy foods as a requirement for licensed food retailers. To our knowledge, this is the only policy of its kind in the U.S., and as such it serves as an important model for other local governments seeking to increase healthy food availability and prevent obesity through local policy action.


Identifying strategies for effective weight management in diverse interventions
Melissa Laska

This study utilizes an innovative process to identify behavioral techniques across studies that lead to successful weight loss. Specifically, the approach measures the extent to which behavior change techniques are employed by each of the seven EARLY interventions and to use those measures in conjunction with measures of intervention intensity in a manner similar to a process previously used successfully by another consortium of independent, but coordinated, randomized controlled trials. The goal is to identify theory-based behavior change techniques that lead to successful weight loss in young adults in this group of interventions. Another goal of this project is to develop, test and disseminate the process used to identify the most promising techniques across this consortium of studies. Hence, the overall goals of this project are to identify basic discoveries about intervention components related to weight loss and to disseminate the information to scientists, physicians and ultimately the public.


Evaluating options for non-responders: A smart approaching to enhancing weight loss
Nancy Sherwood

Adaptive interventions that offer “the right treatment, at the right time, for the right person” are needed to increase the number of people who can successfully lose weight. Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART) designs were developed to build optimal adaptive interventions but have not yet been applied to obesity treatment. This proposed SMART trial will evaluate the optimal timing and therapeutic approach for improving weight loss outcomes among non-responders to state-of-the-art behavioral weight loss programs.


Imacts of later high school start times on adolescent weight and weight-related behavior
Rachel Widome

This project seeks to clarify how sleep relates to weight gain and weight-related behaviors (eating, physical activity, etc.) among adolescents, as well as provide evidence for whether delayed high school start times can minimize unhealthy weight gain in children.


How do early stressors get “under the skin”: Understanding the mechanisms through which neighborhood and family stressors impact cardiometabolic risk
Simone French and Nancy Sherwood

This study will collect follow-up data on a unique cohort of racially/ethnically diverse, low income children who participated in a two-arm randomized controlled obesity prevention trial. The goals of this study are to:

  1. Characterize the emergence of dysregulation in cardiometabolic processes in this high-risk cohort of children at 7-10 years of age, and
  2. Identify the malleable factors that mitigate the deleterious impact of early environmental stressors on later cardiometabolic risk.


Value and mechanisms of home visitation in obesity interventions for low-income children
Simone French

This study compares the efficacy and cost effectiveness of home visiting versus clinic-based pediatric obesity treatment. Parent-child dyads (n=266) will be randomized to either home-visiting or clinic-based treatment for the child for 12 months. The primary outcome is change in child BMI z score at 12 months.

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