Healthy fried chicken?


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Food manufacturers and marketers gathered in Athens this spring to learn how to better market healthy food choices to Americans. This marks the third conference the University of Georgia’s Obesity Initiative has hosted for food manufacturers. Working with industry to improve the healthy choices in American grocery stores and restaurants has become an important hallmark of the initiative’s work.

“We need to consider the entire value chain involved with obesity and all the actors within that chain if we are going to reduce the prevalence of obesity, and the food industry is just one of those actors that play a major role,” said Diane Hartzell, the initiative’s assistant director.

Food marketers and manufacturers are often deterred from making healthier foods because Americans have repeatedly failed to buy them when they hit the supermarket shelves.

“I have had any number of people in the industry tell me in frustration, ‘Wicker, we can make healthy choice foods, but consumers will not buy them because there is a perception that they will not taste good,’” said Louise Wicker, a professor of food science and technology in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the UGA Obesity Initiative’s Obesity and Food Ingredients team leader.

“Taste, cost and convenience are the major drivers of food purchase,” she continued, “and we are working to identify the barriers to creating healthy foods that consumers will purchase, especially for the moderate- to low-income consumer.”

Food marketing guru Howard Moskowitz, who was hosted by the UGA Obesity Initiative and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, told the industry representatives that adjusting their marketing strategies would help them sell more healthy products.

Moskowitz is a market researcher and psychophysicist who is well regarded in business, marketing and academic circles for his pioneering use of data to improve marketing techniques and change consumer behavior. He’s the author of 16 books on data and marketing. A TED Talk featuring his work—“Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce”—has been viewed more than 5 million times.

He argues that food marketers should no longer try to market to American consumers as one large monolithic group. Instead, they should work to market their goods to groups of consumers based on the ways they prioritize healthfulness, cost, flavor and convenience.

“We’ve been using one message for everyone,” he said. “Our job is to find out what the segments are, find out what they want and sell them based on what they need to hear.”

Wicker worked with Moskowitz on a recent study to see if the way healthy foods are marketed affect their success. The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the UGA Obesity Initiative and the UGA Office of the Vice President for Research funded the study.

They asked people questions from 400 possible combinations of silos and elements about a theoretical fried-chicken-like product that was manufactured in a healthier manner. They rated how likely they were to buy the product based on a one sentence vignettes, like, “The oven-baked chicken has the flavor of fried but with less fat.”

They found that consumers fall into a few very distinct groups and that the secret to marketing healthy foods, or any food really, is to direct the marketing messages to these specific consumer groups.

Three consumer groups were identified for the fried-chicken-like product. Convenience buyers will try a healthy new product if its convenience benefits are touted, while diehard health nuts would rather hear about the healthy aspects of the product. There is also a group of consumers with an almost philosophical connection with traditionally prepared foods, which may not be healthy.

The latter group of folks won’t buy “healthier” versions of their favorite comfort foods on principal. There’s no point in marketing healthier products to them, Moskowitz said, but food manufacturers also shouldn’t let them define the market.

Moskowitz and Wicker hope to use their initial work with food marketing and consumer segmentation as the foundation of a National Science Foundation research center proposal that will establish partnerships between the private food industries and the University of Georgia and Louisiana State University, with the goal to improve health and wellness and curb obesity.

Wicker is retiring from UGA this summer to accept the position of director of the School of Nutrition and Food Sciences in the LSU Ag Center.  She will lead the center site effort at LSU, in individual and collaborative projects with Don Harn, a GRA Distinguished Investigator and professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Debbie Murray, the associate dean for extension and outreach in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, who will lead the satellite center site effort from UGA.

— Merritt Melancon, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

UGA professor named vice-president elect of American Society of Nutrition


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Mary-Ann-Johnson-cropUGA professor Mary Ann Johnson has been voted vice-president elect of the American Society of Nutrition.

Johnson, the Bill and June Flatt Professor in Foods and Nutrition at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, will begin serving her four-year term on June 1. She currently serves as the organization’s national spokesperson.

The American Society of Nutrition has more than 5,000 members, including some of the world’s leading researchers, clinical nutritionists and industrial scientists.

During her term, Johnson aims to support the application of nutrition science research to improve public health, clinical practice and policy. She also wants to promote graduate education and training of physicians, dietitians and other health professionals.

“ASN’s strength lies with the diverse expertise among our membership in basic and applied sciences that we can apply to address complex domestic and international nutrition concerns,” Johnson said. “In this new role, I plan to help ASN members meet the changing needs of society and to generate and apply the best nutrition science available to improve health and well-being.”


At UGA, Johnson also serves a leadership role in the Obesity Initiative and has recently helped launch a new graduate certificate program in obesity and weight management.


Weight Loss Plan Winners


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Infographic Small

Take a look at the differences between the three programs. For more information, view the entire infographic by clicking on the image. The image will appear in another tab.

With the myriad of weight loss and exercise programs flooding the marketplace, it can be difficult for people who need to shed a few extra pounds to know what works and what doesn’t.

But now, researchers from Johns Hopkins University who reviewed studies of commercial weight loss programs identified two programs that seem to help people lose weight – and keep it off for at least a year: Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Their results were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in April.

In a year, Weight Watchers participants lost 2.6 percent more weight than those not on the plan, while Jenny Craig participants lost at least 4.9 percent more weight. In contrast, those following the popular Atkins diet only had 0.1 to 2.9 percent greater weight loss within the same time period than those who weren’t in the program.

Out of the 32 commercial weight loss plans, Weight Watchers was one of the least expensive at $43 a month. However, this doesn’t include the cost of food. Participants can eat conventional food and track their eating habits using a point system. The program also includes physical activity tracking, as well as group sessions, online coaching and an online community forum.

In contrast, Jenny Craig costs the user $570 a month, but this includes the cost of food and 1-on-1 counseling. The program also “encourages increased physical activity,” according to the paper.

“Weight Watchers has consistently come up as a good program,” said Mary Ann Johnson, Bill and June Flatt Professor in Foods and Nutrition in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “There are many studies on it. All those studies showed weight loss, and the cost is very reasonable.”

The researchers also found that a few other programs like Nutrisystem show “promising results,” but more studies are needed to see if the pounds don’t come back in the long run. Nutrisystem participants lost 3.8 percent more weight in three months than those not in the program.

Johnson said people thinking about losing weight should consult their physician before enrolling, and physicians should learn about the pros and cons of different weight loss programs.

Given the results of their study, the researchers recommended that physicians refer their patients to either Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, especially if they don’t have the time, training or staff to deliver other alternative weight loss methods, such as counseling.

Pilot study: Nickel allergy linked to obesity?


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Reducing nickel in their diet may help some overweight and obese people lose weight, especially those undergoing menopause, according to a recent pilot study published in PLOS ONE.

Overweight women with a nickel allergy lost weight after six months on a diet that excluded foods high in nickel, including legumes, soy, and whole grain products, and restricted some other foods, including tomatoes, cauliflower, carrots, onions, spinach and lettuce.

Nickel, the fourth most used metal in the world, also is found in water, soil and foods. While best known as a skin allergen – resulting in dermatitis and eczema where the skin comes in contact with the metal, often in jewelry, including piercings, and increasingly, electronic devices. Nickel also can cause systemic allergic symptoms, including gastrointestinal disorders. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the population, mostly women, may be sensitive to nickel, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Previous studies have linked nickel allergies and decreased estrogen levels to higher levels of IL-17, an inflammatory molecule associated with obesity, according to the study.

After six months, more than half of the women following the diet dropped an average of 5.1 percent of their body fat, trimmed 11.7 inches off their waists and dropped their BMI’s by 4.2 points.

The study group had an unusually high number of nickel allergies compared to the general public. Sixty percent of the women and 13 percent of the men were allergic to the metal. In the general population, only 13 percent of the women and 2 percent of men have nickel allergy.

The study’s authors suggest that a diet high in nickel may increase levels of inflammation in allergic women, or that it might increase gut microflora, which cause the inflammation response. Further study is needed to confirm these results and to determine the long-term effects of a low-nickel diet. Diets that are low in nickel tend to also be low in fiber and can lead to constipation in some individuals.

The study was reported by the Wall Street Journal, MedPageToday and other media.


Want to lose weight? See your doctor


Obesity Initiative at UGA

A researcher from the University of Georgia has shown that people who were advised to lose weight by their physicians were more likely to shed the pounds than those who weren’t, according to the Athens-Banner Herald.

After analyzing a national dataset from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Joshua Berning, an assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, found that physician advice was associated with a 10-pound weight loss for women and a 12-pound weight loss for men over a one-year period.

His results were published in Economics and Human Biology in April.

According to a UGA press release, Berning said direct communication has a powerful impact on obesity, but the problem is doctors don’t take the time to talk to patients about being overweight.

“They need to take the opportunity to interact with their patients,” Berning said on the press release. “Through an open dialogue, patients can find solutions to their health issues, especially in terms of obesity,”

Berning explained that the success of physician recommendation comes from getting a tailored opinion. Physicians are able to put a person’s health into context by looking at multiple factors—such as diet, exercise and medical history—to determine patient-specific risks and treatments.

“Oftentimes we have a sense of complacency with our own health,” he said. “A good physician can help us understand what kind of health trajectory we are on and how we can improve it.”

Changes are coming to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans


Obesity Initiative at UGA

After scouring through a mountain of scientific evidence on diet and nutrition, a panel of experts has produced over 500 pages jam-packed with recommendations on what and how much Americans should be eating.

Last month, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee submitted a report to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Their recommendations, along with input from other federal agencies and the public, will be used to revamp the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines were last published in 2010 and are changed every five years.

For the 2015 version, the panel loosened restrictions on sodium and looked into the safety of coffee. They also examined the importance of sustainable food production for the first time.

“That’s just a really fabulous development,” said Mary Ann Johnson, UGA’s Bill and June Flatt professor in Foods and Nutrition. “Because when we think about how we can keep people healthy, it’s not just what we eat, or how physically active we are, we have to think much more broadly — having a healthy and sustainable food production system.”

An old, popular mainstay – cholesterol – is also getting the boot.

“We’ve actually known for a long time that our dietary intake of cholesterol does not cause our blood cholesterol to fluctuate very much,” Johnson said.

Instead, she says nutrients like saturated fat are more likely to blame for high levels of blood cholesterol.

The entire report is available to download here. The USDA and HHS are soliciting comments from the general public through May 8th, 11:59 p.m. E.D.T. There is also going to be a public forum on March 24, 2015 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. More information can be found here.

Healthy labels do not translate into healthier diets


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Despite numerous labels touting “organic” and “natural” food at the supermarket, Americans still have pretty unhealthy diets. Louise Wicker, a professor from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), explains why Americans still stick to the fatty, salty and sugary, and provides ways on how to develop healthy eating habits early in this article from Georgia FACES.

Terms like “gluten-free,” “natural,” “organic” and “locally grown” are popping up all over the grocery store and in the food media. It may seem like Americans are eating healthier than ever before.

In reality, only a select group of consumers are buying products that are marketed as being healthier or more environmentally conscious. Most consumers are still eating high-calorie, processed foods and make food choices based on taste and convenience rather than health claims.

Food science professor Louise Wicker, of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), studies what drives consumer choices and how to get people to eat healthier food.

She’s found that consumers who place a premium on foods that make these claims only represent a small segment of the population. Many more Americans build their diets around foods that are high in fat, salt and calories, and more than one-third of American adults are obese.

“How did we get to this place of obesity, under-nutrition and lack of awareness of sustainable agricultural practices by a large segment of the population?” Wicker asked at a recent Sustainable Food Systems Initiative seminar, a forum for faculty from colleges across UGA to share their research and to have meaningful dialogue on the issue of food production and consumption.

Until World War II, America’s under-nutrition problems were fueled by food insecurity. The priority was providing the public with adequate nutrients. After WWII, a number of changes in U.S. society, including women joining the workforce, led to a boom in the development of processed foods. Americans began over-consuming and making other lifestyle choices that resulted in taking in more calories than they burned.

In the last 50 or 60 years, average Americans have lost interest in cooking and lost cooking skills. In 1960, the average home-cooked meal contained 20 ingredients. Today the average home-cooked meal includes fewer than six ingredients. It’s not just that people have lost the desire to cook; many families have busy schedules that put cooking on the back burner.

When choosing between cooking dinner or going to their child’s school concert, for example, most parents prioritize spending free time with their children, which means buying pre-packaged meals and eating away from home, Wicker said.

One key to developing healthier eating habits is to “start with schools, so kids bring the habits home to mom and dad.” Children are likely to eat healthier if fruits and vegetables taste better and if their flavor profiles are shifted.

Moreover, there is evidence that obese and non-obese people experience food differently, Wicker said. “Obese individuals tend to prefer more salt, fat and sugar and are not satiated by the same amount as normal weight individuals,” she said.

Cutting the amount of sugar, salt and fat that children expect in their meals can short circuit this cycle early. Offering more and better fruits, vegetables and healthy options can eventually change students’ taste buds. Farm-to-school programs get kids excited about growing and eating vegetables.

Healthier eating for adults isn’t easy. Their feelings about food and taste preferences can take longer to change. While people say they want healthier or more natural groceries, good intentions don’t always translate into sales or consumption of healthy choice foods.

Sometimes, health claims can actually turn consumers away.

For example, in spring of 2013, Burger King introduced Satisfries—French fries that were advertised as having 40 percent less fat than the McDonald’s fries. Sales were unexpectedly low, and by fall 2014, Burger King announced they would no longer offer Satisfries.

People have a misconception that food labeled as healthy tastes bad. Many food giants are starting to lower salt, sugar and fat content without telling consumers, Wicker said. The hope is that these “stealth health” initiatives don’t turn consumers away.

The Sustainable Food Systems Initiative is a collaborative effort between CAES and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Odum School of Ecology, College of Environment and Design, College of Family and Consumer Sciences and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at UGA. The goal is to provide an interdisciplinary setting for students, professors and other scientists to address issues plaguing modern food production, like conservation of natural resources, feeding the growing population, environmental degradation and nutrition.

New school lunch menu wins students’ hearts despite bumpy start


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Students were not instant fans of the new school lunch menus introduced in 2012, with some not just pushing their trays away, but throwing unwanted food in the garbage.

But after a semester or so, students began to like the food, at least to some extent, according to two studies published last year.

Researchers from the University of Illinois looked into how students reacted after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the new National School Lunch Program (NSLP) standards in 2012.

The new standards required that half of the grains served in schools during the 2012 – 2013 school year should be whole grains. After this transition period, schools should be serving solely whole grain products starting fall 2013.

Schools also needed to offer a fruit and a vegetable daily, limit milk options to either nonfat or low fat (1 percent) and ban all food with trans fats.

They asked school administrators and food service workers in elementary, middle and high schools about the number of complaints they’ve heard and how much food students wasted.

Most of the respondents said many students complained in the fall of 2012, but far fewer complaints were heard by the time spring rolled around.

Middle and high school officials also reported that their students were throwing away more food than the previous year, before the standards came into effect.

But in areas where a large chunk of elementary and middle school students get free or reduced lunch, respondents said less food ended up in the dumpster.

Officials in rural schools also seem to be dealing with more complaints and food waste than their urban or suburban counterparts. They were also more likely to report fewer students buying lunch.

In Clarke County, school nutrition coordinator Hillary Savage said she did not recall students complaining about the food or notice an increase in wasted food when the new standards were implemented.

“Clarke County had been proactive about adopting changes… well in advance of the federally mandated changes,” Savage said. “This allowed students to become familiar with these items gradually over several years rather than overnight.”

Savage says they try to spotlight at least one item a week and offer a variety of food, so at least something along the lunch line appeals to students.

She said no one wins if the food doesn’t get eaten.

Students and teachers lose because students won’t have energy for class. If food gets wasted, Savage and her team also lose.

“We want our hard work to go to the tummy, not the trash can.”

For some, “healthy obesity” may just be a phase


Obesity Initiative at UGA

“Healthy” obesity may just be a short detour on the road to being unhealthy.

The idea that a person can be heavy, but healthy, has been gathering interest over the years. In some circles, obese people are considered healthy when they don’t have heart conditions or metabolic issues that are usually associated with increased weight.

But scientists have not agreed on whether these individuals can naturally maintain their health or if they are on their way to developing health problems like diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Now researchers in the U.K. who kept tabs on a cohort of “healthy” obese people for 20 years have found that more than half of them eventually became obese and unhealthy. The findings of researchers at University College London were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

In this small study, the researchers looked at five health parameters: cholesterol, blood pressure, glucose levels, triglyceride levels and insulin resistance.

Of the 66 people who were obese but were classified as healthy, 25 remained the same, 34 became unhealthy. Only 7 lost weight and became healthy and non-obese within 20 years.

“ ’Healthy obesity’ is quite a misleading term,” lead author Joshua A. Bell, a doctoral candidate at University College London, told the New York Times Wellness Blog. “It sounds safe, but we know that it’s only healthy in a relative sense.”

Bell says the healthy obese eventually become unhealthy and end up in the group with the highest risk.

“This is a real challenge to the idea that the obese can be healthy in the long term.”

Georgia BIO to present Lifetime Achievement Award to Clifton Baile


Obesity Initiative at UGA

Georgia Bio will honor Clifton Baile, the late founder and director of the UGA Obesity Initiative, with its Lifetime Achievement Award at its Annual Awards Dinner on January 22. The award is presented to individuals who have performed an outstanding service and accomplishment spanning a career to Georgia Bio and the life sciences industry at-large.

Georgia Bio President and CEO Russ Allen stated, “Cliff was a prestigious industry scholar and a generous individual. He mentored countless students and companies over his career, and he helped us to understand how Georgia Bio should serve the needs of industry. Cliff was selfless in his giving and leaves a legacy of excellence that each of us can follow, emulate and share.”

Read more.