Child Eating

New Direction for UGA Obesity Initiative

 

Message from David Lee, UGA Vice President for Research

I am pleased to announce the new director of the UGA Obesity Initiative, Leann Birch, the William P. Flatt Professor in the Department of Foods and Nutrition, College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Dr. Birch, a leader in research on early obesity prevention, assumes this leadership role effective immediately.

The UGA Obesity Initiative was launched in 2012 as a campus-wide initiative. Directed by Clifton A. “Cliff” Baile, a D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor and GRA Eminent Scholar in Biotechnology at the University of Georgia, the initiative’s mission is to address the epidemic of obesity and overweight that faces our state and our nation. Under Dr. Baile, UGA responded to this critical health issue with a broad initiative that harnessed the efforts of a diverse group of UGA faculty. Although Dr. Baile died suddenly in 2014, the initiative has continued under my interim direction.

As the new director of the UGA Obesity Initiative, Dr. Birch brings renewed energy as well as a focus on transdisciplinary research that informs effective and sustainable obesity prevention programs, especially for young children and their families. It is well established that dietary habits formed early in life have profound impacts on the risk of obesity in later life. Under Dr. Birch’s direction, the Obesity Initiative will also emphasize the reduction of obesity-related health disparities among low-income African Americans through a partnership with the UGA Center for Family Research.

Before coming to UGA in 2014, Dr. Birch was a distinguished professor of human development in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State, and director of the Penn State Center for Childhood Obesity Research.

Her research focuses on individual and contextual factors affecting the development of individual differences in the behavioral controls of food intake and obesity risk among infants, children, and adolescents. In recent years, her research has involved randomized controlled trials, which have been successful in reducing early obesity risk. These interventions, designed to influence maternal caregiving, infant feeding, sleeping, and crying, prevented excessive weight gain in infancy and reduced the prevalence of overweight during infancy and early childhood.

Dr. Birch is the author of more than 250 publications and has been awarded more than $30 million in federal research funding.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Birch as director of the Obesity Initiative.

Obesity Initiative Mission

To promote transdisciplinary research that will inform effective and sustainable obesity prevention programs for children and families. The Obesity Initiative will be working in collaboration with the University of Georgia  Center for Family Research (CFR), conducting research to reduce health disparities in obesity among low-income African Americans.

Rationale for Early Obesity Prevention

Early obesity prevention is critical to addressing the obesity epidemic, particularly among ethnic minority populations at highest risk; by the age of 5, 33% of economically disadvantaged children in the US are overweight or obese. With respect to the impact of early obesity on health later in the lifespan, the evidence is clear: young children don’t “grow out of it”; rather, becoming overweight in infancy or childhood sharply increases the risk for obesity, along with risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer later in life. Prevention programs for families are a priority because familial factors are key contributors to childhood obesity, and to health disparities in obesity.

Leadership

Leann BirchLeann Birch, Ph.D., Director of the UGA Obesity Initiative, is William P. Flatt Professor in the Department of Foods and Nutrition at The University of Georgia. Her research focuses on individual and contextual factors affecting the development of individual differences in the behavioral controls of food intake and obesity risk among infants, children, and adolescents. In recent years, her research has focused on conducting randomized controlled trials, which have been successful in reducing early obesity risk. These interventions, designed to influence maternal caregiving, infant feeding, sleeping, and crying, prevented excessive weight gain in infancy and reduced the prevalence of overweight during infancy and early childhood. She is the author of more than 250 publications and has been awarded more than $30 million in federal research funding. Dr. Birch received her PhD in Psychology from the University of Michigan and served on the faculty at the University of Illinois and the Pennsylvania State University before joining the UGA faculty in 2014.