Fighting the Obesity Epidemic

January 24, 2013
Marcia Ory, Ph.D.

Marcia Ory, Ph.D.

Through prevention and research as well as education and community service faculty members and students at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) School of Rural Public Health address a number of public health challenges related to obesity. As a result, several awards have been received including the Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging National Recognition Program and the 2011 Excellence in Texas School Health Discover Award by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Faculty and staff continue to make presentations on obesity prevention research at multiple conferences nationally and internationally, including the International Society for Behavior, Nutrition, and Physical Activity conference in Melbourne, Australia. Regents and Distinguished Professor Marcia Ory, Ph.D., M.P.H., co-presented with Deanna Hoelscher, Ph.D., R.D., professor at the UT School of Public Health, concerning the Texas Childhood Obesity Prevention Program Evaluation Project. Texas was one of three states awarded $2 million by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to evaluate the effectiveness of childhood obesity prevention policies. Drs. Ory and Hoelscher are co-principal investigators working on the Texas statewide program to examine the effects of two national policies on childhood obesity in Texas: the revised Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food package and Safe Routes to School.

Joseph Sharkey, Ph.D., M.P.H., RD

Joseph Sharkey, Ph.D., M.P.H., RD

Other presenters at the conference included Joseph Sharkey, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., professor and director of the TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health Program for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities, Wesley Dean, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor, and Cassandra Johnson, M.S.P.H., former research associate and program coordinator. Dr. Sharkey organized and chaired a symposium titled, “It’s the context in which people experience food-related challenges and opportunities: Using multiple qualitative methods.” Johnson (co-authors Dr. Dean and Dr. Sharkey) presented on a participant-driven photo-elicitation study of Mexican-origin mothers in South Texas. Her oral and poster presentation focused on “what it takes” for mothers in South Texas to feed their families. Dr. Dean (co-authors Johnson and Dr. Sharkey) examined the interdependency of resources employed to manage food related hardships in a presentation titled, “Resource substitution and the management of food-related hardships in the rural Brazos Valley, Texas.” In another oral presentation, Dr. Dean (co-author Dr. Sharkey) presented, “The management of food-related hardships in Colonia households in South Texas: A participant observation study.”  More information can be found in International Journal for Equity in Health.

Additional studies by Dr. Sharkey and those involved in the Program for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine discuss the balance of healthy vs. less-healthy foods in convenience stores choices in certain Texas-Mexico border communities and linking very low food security with intake of more calories, total fat, added sugar in Mexican-origin children.

Dr. Sharkey was awarded $140,000 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Prevention Research Center program for a two-year Texas Border Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network project  (TxBNOPRE). The TxBNOPRE will work with the larger Nutrition and Obesity Policy Research and Evaluation Network (NOPREN) to respond to issues related to the identification of policies that affect improved access and availability of health foods and beverages.

“Although obesity has risen at alarming rates among all segments of the population, prevalence is highest among Mexican-American children and continues to increase among the poor and near-poor,” Dr. Sharkey said. “Mexican-origin children and families in the colonias of the Lower Rio Grande Valley reside in areas that demonstrate high rates of childhood and adult obesity, poverty, food insecurity and geographic challenges associated with residence.”

Obesity is an increasing problem for adult women in rural areas, and a published study in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics by Tiffany Radcliff, Ph.D. and others, assert that continuing positive lifestyle habits after successful weight loss is difficult in areas with limited local support resources. Distance for participants and the fixed costs to offer center-based care can present a barrier to program access in rural areas.

Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE

Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE

Stand-biased desks in classrooms are being researched by Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE, assistant professor, who was awarded $402,875 by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to conduct a two-year study. The Dynamic Classrooms Project will examine the effects of using a stand-biased classroom design on children’s caloric expenditure and physical activity, their behavioral engagement in the classroom, and academic performance.

“Given the growing epidemic, childhood obesity continues to be a focus area for public health,” said Dr. Benden who serves as principal investigator on the study. “Different aspects of the school setting have been targeted, but one untapped opportunity is increasing physical activity during instructional time without disrupting planned instruction.”

For additional articles on obesity prevention activities by faculty and staff can be found at TAMU, UT: Garden to Fight Childhood Obesity and Engaging Community Leaders in Obesity Prevention.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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