Christina Campbell (right), the Sandra S. and Roy W. Uelner Professor in food science and human nutrition, works with the Blossom Project to improve women’s diet and exercise habits during pregnancy. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Researchers tackle obesity from multiple perspectives

Iowa State University researchers in food science and human nutrition, kinesiology, and human development and family studies form a cross-departmental team seeking to better understand, prevent, and treat obesity throughout the lifespan.

Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States, putting about 17 percent or 12.7 million children and adolescents at risk for poor health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The problem starts before birth.

“If a mother starts and ends her pregnancy in the obesity category, she sets the stage for both her and her baby to be obese later in life,” said Christina Campbell, the Sandra S. and Roy W. Uelner Professor in food science and human nutrition. “The way the mom handles her pregnancy physiologically, like with preeclampsia or hypertension, provides a good indicator to future disease patterns.”

Campbell is founder and principal investigator of the Blossom Project, a research project that aims to improve women’s diet and exercise habits during pregnancy.

Working with Campbell, doctoral student Lyndi Buckingham-Schutt is completing research that has succeeded at preventing excessive weight gain during pregnancy. Her work is funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Needs Fellowship and supported by the Uelner professorship.

Preschool and school-age children

Spyridoula Vazou, an assistant professor in kinesiology, works with preschoolers and elementary school children to promote health and prevent childhood obesity. She developed a Move for Thought kit to increase physical activity opportunities through a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Iowa Team Nutrition grant.

A 2015 study by Vazou and associate kinesiology professor Ann Smiley-Oyen found that obesity may be detrimental to cognition. The research showed that overweight and obese children perform worse at the cognition test after sitting — and improve more after physical activity — than their peers.

“Obese kids may need movement even more,” Vazou said.

Children may be encouraged to move more and improve their eating habits if schools provide parents with educational materials along with results of their child’s body mass index screening, according to a study by Greg Welk published in February by the journal Childhood Obesity.

“The use of BMI screening on a regular basis can help schools by providing information to help evaluate changes at the school level,” said Welk, a Barbara E. Forker Professor in Kinesiology. “It can also directly help individual children and parents to potentially identify growth patterns that may predispose youth to becoming overweight or obese.”

Tricia Neppl and Brenda Lohman in human development and family studies examine the relationship between environmental stress, genetic biomarkers, and childhood obesity across generations, with the help of a seed grant and longitudinal data from the Family Transitions Project.

A 2016 study by Lohman, Neppl, and Meghan Gillette found that women are prone to obesity in early adulthood if their adolescent years include prolonged periods of food insecurity coupled with harsh parenting practices.

“When females who are normal weight in their early adolescence experience food insecurity, something is happening in their bodies,” said Lohman, the study’s lead author. “This sets them on a path toward increased weight gain, so by the time they are 23, they are more likely to be overweight or obese.”

Prevention and treatment of obesity

More than one-third of adults in the United States are obese, according to the CDC. Conditions related to obesity include heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

A number of obesity-induced metabolic problems — such as Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance — may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, said Auriel Willette, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition.

"Obesity can, over time, negatively affect how our brain processes new memories, which may be related to Alzheimer's,” Willette said.

Laura Ellingson, an assistant professor in kinesiology, is on a team using an innovative approach to assess physical activity, appetite, and metabolic systems to develop new strategies directed to the prevention and treatment of obesity.

This intervention manipulates physical activity for short periods of time. Participants complete a baseline condition as well as "high active" and "low active" conditions for two weeks each. Researchers then look at how these changes in physical activity behaviors influence appetite as well as hormone levels associated with appetite and microorganisms in the human digestive tract, or “gut microbiome.”

This information will help researchers understand the complex interplay between physical activity and diet, and how they both influence obesity as well as other factors related to well-being, like sleep and mood. The work comes with help from a Research Enhancement Grant in the College of Human Sciences.