Obesity Environment Interaction

Functional Fitness, Disability & Environment

Kevin McCully, Team Leader
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Studies how disability and other losses in physical function can affect weight, fitness and quality of life, as well as to study the physical environment and its relation to obesity. Efforts in this area include 1) the development of a class to give students hands-on instruction in designing fitness plans for community residents with disabilities; 2) using digital media to design urban environments that promote physical activity; and 3) examining the physical abilities of and designing fitness plans for people with intellectual disabilities.

Obesity Prevention & Treatment

Food Ingredients & Obesity

Louise Wicker, Team Leader
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Studies ingredients in food that may influence obesity, including the impact certain food components may have on appetite and weight or other health outcomes, and how to create or modify ingredients in food to be healthier. A team goal is creation of a food industry/academia consortium to address technological barriers to healthy weight foods that also meet consumers’ need for taste, cost and convenience. Identification of population segments and tailored messages for those segments would enhance the ability of the industry to produce and market healthy weight foods.

Objectives of this consortium would include:

  • Understanding interactions of food ingredients; facilitating development of highly acceptable foods that are less calorie-dense, yet are wholesome, cost-effective and convenient
  • Forming partnerships between public & private sectors to identify food processing strategies to provide safe, wholesome foods that promote healthy weight
  • Making Georgia the leader in taking effective action to reverse obesity trends

Exercise & Obesity

Ellen Evans and Mary Ann Johnson, Team Leaders
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Investigates how human movement, including intentional exercise, habitual physical activity, and sedentary/sitting time can directly contribute to the prevention and treatment of obesity. In addition, the research programs target chronic conditions associated with obesity that are independently influenced by exercise and physical activity such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. Research in this area includes 1) Project DIVAS, which is investigating if a weight loss diet higher in protein in combination with exercise training enhances body composition changes and physical function in older women compared to a traditional diet higher in carbohydrate; 2) Project PACE, which explored the effect of initiating a structured walking exercise program on dietary intake in adult women and if the changes in behavior were influenced by personality or weight status.

Pre-adipocyte Targeted Pharmaceuticals

Gary Hausman, Team Leader
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Studies the structure, function and regulation of adipocytes (fat cells) and their precursors (pre-adipocytes). One aim of this team is the creation of pharmaceuticals that may target adipocytes or pre-adipocytes in order to prevent or reduce obesity. Research in this area includes 1) the investigation of a human milk sugar treatment of obese pregnant mice to prevent adverse health outcomes in the offspring; and 2) the development of antibodies to pre-adipocytes and/or adipocytes, with the goal of creating a therapy to eliminate excess fat cells.

Musculoskeltal & Obesity

Richard Lewis, Team Leader
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Studies ways in which obesity, diet and exercise may affect bone quality and development. Research in this area includes 1) investigating the impact of childhood obesity on bone development; 2), studying the effects of natural compounds on adipogenesis and bone metabolism; and 3) examining the effects of weight loss interventions on bone quality.

Obesity Cause

Epigenetics & Obesity

Richard Meagher, Team Leader
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Epigenetics is the study of semi-stable changes to the structure of chromatin (DNA with its associated proteins and RNA), as opposed to classical genetics, which commonly looks at mutations in the DNA sequence itself. Epigenetics is a tool to measure the impact of obesity and its study will identify targets to treat negative health outcomes. This team studies the harmful epigenetic reprogramming that occurs in obese individuals, including (1) the impact of exercise and diet on the brain and on peripheral tissues (fat, muscle, bone); (2) the increased incidence of folate-deficiency-related neural tube birth defects in the children of obese women; (3) the relationship of obesity and sleep apnea to cardiovascular disease and diabetes; (4) increased inflammatory diseases resulting from obesity; and (5) the dramatic increase in the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, in obese individuals.

Maternal & Childhood Obesity

Lynn Bailey and Leann Birch, Team Leaders
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Studies obesity as it relates to prenatal, postnatal, infant and childhood aspects of obesity. Research includes 1) examining the effect of maternal obesity on folate metabolism, offspring body composition and offspring health outcomes; 2) investigating prevention of childhood obesity by focusing on nutrition and other health behaviors of children (infants and toddlers through adolescents); 3) studying determinants of childhood obesity, including exercise and social determinants; and 4) looking at the effects of childhood obesity on health outcomes, such as bone development.

Immunology & Obesity

Ralph Tripp, Team Leader
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Studies the intersection of obesity and the immune system, and translates these findings to disease intervention approaches that may impact disease linked to obesity. The discovery that obesity is associated with an inflammatory state has opened the immunological and obesity field to studies that are cross-pollinated by other Obesity Initiative teams, including Bone & Obesity, Epigenetics & Obesity, Exercise & Obesity, Instruction, and Pre-adipocyte Targeted Pharmaceuticals.  The team 1) explores the effects of immune responses and inflammation in metabolic tissues including adipose, osteoclasts, and mesenchymal stem cells and its contribution to immunological and metabolic dysfunction; 2) explores the relationship of virus infection on the origin or mechanism of initiation and/or maintenance of obesity in cell lines and animal models, particularly focusing on the signals or triggers of the inflammatory response; and 3) examines anti-inflammatory strategies and the potential to control obesity disease pathogenesis using vaccine strategies.

CNS & Obesity

Claire de La Serre, Team Leader
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Studies the interaction of obesity with central nervous system functioning. Research includes 1) the effect of high fat diet consumption on neuron synaptic activity and expression of neurotransmitters and receptors in satiety and brain hunger centers; and 2) the influence of maternal diet and epigenetic reprogramming of the brain or microflora; and 3) inflammation interaction with the central nervous system.

Community Health

Community Health

Marsha Davis and Debbie Murray, Team Leaders
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Studies and initiates community efforts to reduce or prevent obesity. Work in this area includes 1) Walk Georgia, a Cooperative Extension fitness program that engages and promotes walking and other forms of exercise among thousands of Georgia residents; 2) partnerships among multiple UGA colleges, Cooperative Extension, Carl Vinson Center, Fanning Institute, and the Archway Program to reduce obesity in Colquitt County (teaching and engaging children and families in healthier lifestyles) and Habersham County (working with community leaders to study physical infrastructure issues of the community such as walkability and bikeability, as well as mapping food purchasing locations).

Persuasive Health & Marketing Communications

Karen King & Glen Nowak, Team Leaders
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Studies the impact of persuasive communications on consumers’ or targeted populations’ diet, exercise and weight-related knowledge, beliefs, intentions and behaviors. Food and nutrition marketers, restaurants, and health advocates often use campaigns, messages, information, news media and social media to try to influence consumers’ food and lifestyle choices and decisions. Work in this area includes 1) evaluating whether virtual reality simulations can persuade people to pay more attention to weight risks associated with consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, as well as whether virtual reality simulations are more persuasive than traditional pamphlets in reducing intentions to drink sugar-sweetened beverages; 2) examining the amount and types of information in websites for online diet programs; 3) assessing parents’ attitudes regarding snack food advertising directed at children; and 4) evaluating the impact of “virtual pets” in helping children set and achieve physical activity goals.


Mary Ann Johnson and Ellen Evans, Team Leaders
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Designs instruction programs (courses, certificates and degree programs) and conferences to prepare our current and future workforce to address the obesity epidemic. Efforts include 1) the creation of an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Obesity and Weight Management that will provide obesity-related graduate instruction for individuals working in nutrition, food, agriculture, physical activity, behavioral management and counseling, public health, public policy, and related areas; 2) obesity-related conferences focused on education, including a “State-of-the-Art Conference on Interdisciplinary Graduate Education in Obesity and Weight Management” (July 2013) with attendees from 12 universities, focused on the design of graduate-level instruction in obesity; and 3) a graduate instruction conference (July 2014), “Case-based Learning for Childhood Obesity: Strategic Planning Conference,” focused on preparing the workforce to address childhood obesity.