Increasingly, more of us are entering the ranks of those who need to shed some pounds. Today, an estimated 64 percent of all American adults are overweight or obese. And this epidemic extends to our children, our nation’s future. Nearly 9 million children aged 6 years or older, from all states, socioeconomic, and ethnic groups, are obese. A disproportionate number of them are African-American, Hispanic, or American Indian.
Unfortunately, there are few proven strategies for either preventing further unhealthy weight gain or ensuring permanent weight loss. To help Americans rein in this epidemic, research by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at six Human Nutrition Research Centers coast-to-coast are joining forces to focus on obesity prevention. But can scientific studies yield ways to help prevent gradual, unhealthy weight gain in adults and kids? We think so.
And we are pursuing multiple research approaches to achieve that goal. Our first approach is to understand the biology underlying development of overweight and obesity. Using new genomic, proteomic, and metabolic research tools, ARS scientists are delving into the genes and resulting proteins and metabolites (compounds formed when proteins jump into action, for instance) that may be the culprits behind a propensity to easily gain weight.
Here’s why this information is important: The earlier a physician, dietitian, or other health care professional can reliably profile this propensity, the sooner it might be counteracted. That can be life giving for our children. Today’s childhood obesity rates may make our kids’ lifespans shorter than our own, some experts predict.
Second, we’re taking a closer look at the impact of healthful eating and physical activity patterns on preventing obesity. For example, we want to determine whether adhering to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nation’s recommendations for what we eat and how physically active we need to be, can actually help keep off excess body fat. Because the guidelines are regularly updated, there’s an ongoing opportunity for the newest data from ARS’ scientific studies to be used in shaping each new generation of recommendations.
A third approach focuses on boosting the success of community-wide tactics to help people choose to eat healthful foods, and get the physical activity they need. Individuals can make changes, but what happens when they step outside their homes? We want to ensure that community cultures support healthful eating and physical activity practices.
Fourth, ARS scientists at food quality and utilization laboratories are developing a variety of healthy new foods that are convenient as well as tasty. A healthful additive called C-Trim that could replace fat in yogurt, peanut butter, or other favorites is among the remarkable products.
Lastly, we’re helping to create a toolbox of handy obesity-prevention resources for adults and youngsters to use and benefit from. Key among the tools are the online versions, for kids and adults, of USDA’s MyPyramid. Other highly useful tools for adults include the ARS calorie and nutrient databases that you can download to your hand-held computer.
With each of the approaches described here, we want to help people avoid putting on those troublesome excess pounds. Hopefully, new research findings and novel tools emerging from ARS investigations will go a long way toward deflating America’s obesity epidemic.
Molly Kretsch is national program leader for Human Nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville, Md. Visit: www.ars.usda.gov.