New Research Center in Penn State College of Health and Human Development to Tackle Childhood Obesity Epidemic

September 1, 2005

(University Park, Pa) — Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States — so much so, in fact, that it is now considered to be the primary health issue facing American children in the 21st century.

Given the catastrophic ramifications that this crisis could have on the health and well-being of individuals and communities, the Penn State College of Health and Human Development has decided to tackle this issue. On July 1, the college opened the Center for Childhood Obesity Research, which it hopes will create the evidence base needed to develop successful childhood obesity prevention and treatment programs.

“A primary focus of our efforts will be on developing programs that prevent the development of obesity during the first years of life,” says Dr. Leann Birch, distinguished professor of human development and nutritional sciences and director of the new center. “This will include helping families foster the development patterns of food intake and physical activity in children so they can maintain healthy weight status.”

According to Dr. Raymond T. Coward, Schultz Professor and Dean of the College of Health and Human Development, one of the biggest advantages of establishing the center in the college is that world-class faculty representing nearly every discipline within the college already are studying the childhood obesity problem. “By establishing this center, we have created a location where our scientists can explore this epidemic collaboratively from a basic, clinical, environmental, physiological and social perspective,” he says. “We can now pool their expertise and resources in order to conduct the cutting-edge research needed to tackle this problem in the most effective and efficient manner.”

A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that the prevalence of childhood obesity in the past 30 years has more than doubled for preschool children (2-5 years old) and adolescents (12-18 years old), and has more than tripled for children between the ages of 6 and 11. In fact, approximately nine million American children over the age of six are already considered to be obese.

Additional studies indicate that more than 60 percent of obese children between the ages of five and 10 already have at least one physiological cardiovascular-disease risk factor and more than one-third of all children born in 2000 are expected to develop Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives. The childhood obesity epidemic also threatens to reduce the average life expectancy of adults, thereby reversing a trend that has the average life expectancy increase by almost 30 years in the past century.

Tackling the childhood obesity epidemic requires a massive effort that involves every element of society — schools, families, health professionals, communities, industry, and government — and is as comprehensive and ambitious as national anti-smoking efforts, according to a September 2004 report issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on Prevention of Obesity in Children and Youth. However, such actions require a solid evidence base that does not currently exist.

“It seems simple – childhood obesity occurs when energy intake exceeds expenditure,” says Birch, who was a member of the IOM committee that prepared the report. “However, we know little about how to effectively prevent and treat it. Therefore, there is a significant need for research that will provide the basis for successful prevention and treatment of childhood obesity.”

Birch, who also currently leads the Children’s Eating Laboratory at Penn State, is recognized internationally as one of the pioneers and leading experts in the study of young children’s eating behaviors. For more than two decades, her work has shaped the international agenda for nutrition education research aimed at improving eating behaviors and preventing and treating childhood obesity and eating disorders. A great deal of her research focuses on how children acquire food preferences and develop the ability to control the amount of food they consume during the first years of their lives. Overall, Birch has received more than $8 million in funding, has been published in 25 books and has written more than 140 scholarly publications.

In addition to serving on the IOM Committee, Birch sits on the board and scientific advisory committee of the International Life Sciences Institute’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Council of Scientific Advisors to its Children’s Nutrition Research Center. She is also an editor for Appetite magazine and works regularly with organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the USDA Advisory Group on Nutrition.

“By conducting research that explores how children’s environments factors and early experience influence the developing controls of food intake and activity patterns, the Center for Childhood Obesity Research has a real chance to make a difference and confront this epidemic,” she says. “At the same time, it allows us to deal indirectly with the adult obesity epidemic facing the nation. One of the biggest risks for childhood obesity is having overweight parents who serve as models for children’s developing eating and activity patterns and create children’s eating and activity environments. So, promoting healthy eating and activity patterns among parents will be central to preventing childhood obesity.”

Faculty from the Penn State colleges of Medicine and Agricultural Sciences also will be actively involved in projects being conducted by the center.

“Childhood obesity is a public crisis that threatens the health and well-being of an entire generation,” notes Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, senior vice president for health affairs and dean of the College of Medicine. “Penn State is committed to developing a solution. Through the involvement of researchers at University Park and clinical scientists at the College of Medicine, the new Center for Childhood Obesity Research will contribute significantly to addressing this nationwide problem.”

“Faculty in the College of Agricultural Sciences plan to collaborate on interdisciplinary research projects that will build the knowledge base on children’s health and obesity disparities as well as address community food systems issues affecting children and youth,” adds Dr. Robert D. Steele, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences. “Prevention-related research based in Pennsylvania communities will be an important focus of the center’s research projects. Penn State Cooperative Extension educators look forward to supporting research studies and applying the research findings recommended by the Center for Childhood Obesity Research as the educators work with parents, schools and communities to address this major health concern of childhood overweight and obesity and related behaviors.”

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Editors: Dr. Birch can be reached at (814) 863-0053 or llb15@psu.edu For additional information, please contact Bill Hessert, director of college relations for the College of Health and Human Development, at (814) 863-4325 or swh4@psu.edu.