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STRIDE sets sights on obesity, other weighty health issues

June 2, 2011

Category: A Closer Look

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo programs among array of CSU research and outreach efforts

Less soda. More “onion.”

That’s a good recipe for reducing and preventing obesity, particularly among children. And it’s being prepared by a legion of students and faculty conducting research and outreach efforts throughout the California State University.

Ann Yelmokas McDermottAs described by Ann McDermott, who directs the STRIDE programs at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the “onion” is a layered—and integrated and comprehensive—socioecological model for approaching the wide range of factors that contribute to excessive weight. In the model, the individual is in the center, surrounded by layers that represent an expanding series of major influences. They range from “interpersonal” ones close to the core, such as family and friends, to the organizational, community, and public-policy realms farther out.

“We’re addressing each layer of the onion,” said McDermott of STRIDE, which stands for Science through Translational Research in Diet and Exercise.

Cal Poly Pomona student Frances Alencastro (front) and her mentor for stem-cell research, Professor Ansel Zhao (back).(Click here for an overview of obesity work  in the CSU, including stem-cell research on fat production, vertical gardens on playgrounds, and briefing Michelle Obama. More resources are below.)

“At every level, we need to support healthy behavior,” McDermott said. “Our goal is to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”  For example, she envisions a fast-food counter where fruit and low-fat milk are showcased as the norm, replacing French fries and soda.

About that soda: According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), someone who drinks a 12-ounce soda every day adds 2.5 pounds of sugar to their diet in a month – or 30 pounds in a year. Just by replacing sodas with water or other zero-calorie drinks, and making no other changes in activity or diet, that “someone” – the NIH estimates – will lose more than a pound a month.

The STRIDE Center uses a suite of programs to address weight issues for individuals of various ages, cultures, and circumstances. How can you design interventions to make a difference? “The key is research,” said McDermott. “Learn why people do what they do before developing programs to help them.”

BOYS: Obesity chart of ages 12-19 shows jumps in prevalence.According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, 34 percent of Americans age 20 and older are obese GIRLS: Obesity chart of ages 12-19 shows jumps in prevalence.and another 34 percent are overweight; and nearly 20 percent of youths ages 6 to 19 in the U.S. are obese, triple the rate of a generation ago.

Suzanne Phelan, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo kinesiology professor who serves on the editorial board of the research journal Obesity, focuses her STRIDE studies on interventions to help overweight and obese women before, during and after pregnancy.

Suzanne Phelan“We have studies testing whether pre-pregnancy weight loss can prevent diabetes during pregnancy,” Phelan said, “and whether a lifestyle intervention during pregnancy can prevent excessive gestational weight gain in obese women and also reduce her offspring’s risk of obesity.”

A STRIDE study called “Fit Moms” examines whether an online intervention can help low-income women lose weight after giving birth. Another, called “Choose to Lose,” examines whether weight loss prior to menopause can reduce risk factors for breast cancer after menopause. Preliminary results of the studies indicate that women involved in the intervention efforts have greater success losing weight than those in an uninvolved control group.

In a 2008 study (covered in USA Today) of obese individuals, Phelan compared the habits of 167 long-term successful dieters (who lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for an average of 14 years) with roughly 300 obese people who had failed in their attempts to lose weight.

Here is what she found sets successful dieters apart from heavier people:

  • They are physically active for an hour a day, burning about 2,600 calories a week with exercise.
  • They engage in high-intensity activity, such as jogging or biking, for about 70 minutes a week.
  • They are always aware of calories and are “highly restrained” eaters.
  • They are less likely to overeat for emotional or environmental reasons.
  • They have fewer televisions.

Another Cal Poly kinesiology professor, the late Susan Puhl, studied the use of DXA scans (shown below) in measuring body fat.  Learn more in this news note: The body seen via DXA.

DXA scan of Biggest Loser_beforeDXA scan of Biggest Loser_after

To gather data, STRIDE often uses its “A Team” of about 50 students trained as research associates. “A” is for the assessments of health they conduct on individuals in the community and on campus.

For one study, the A Team assessed 134 fellow students in two hours – getting resting blood pressures, body compositions and waist circumference. It also surveyed 911 Cal Poly students, finding that 31 percent were overweight or obese. Across all weight groups, elevated blood pressure was extremely common among students, particularly among males.

Back to that soda: weight issues aside, the research showed that Cal Poly students who drank sugar-sweetened beverages were 1.5 to nearly three times more likely to have high blood pressure than their non-sweetened peers.

– Sean Kearns

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