ASPPH logo


School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

UNC Addresses Obesity Challenges in NC and Beyond

Public health researchers have long known that obesity is pandemic – and its financial and human health costs are substantial.

About 35 percent of U.S. adults – 78.6 million people – are obese and therefore at greater risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. is close to $148 billion.

ammerman et al
[Photo: Drs. Alice Ammerman, Myles Faith, John Graham, Leslie Lytle and Liza Makowski]

In North Carolina, where the problem is acute, the need for innovative solutions is immediate. Between 25 percent and 30 percent of North Carolinians are too heavy, and North Carolina ranks forty-first among U.S. states in terms of the state’s residents being at a healthy weight.

Because obesity is a multi-faceted problem, it can be solved only by an integrated, interdisciplinary approach that translates research into meaningful and practical clinical and community solutions. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than 75 faculty members from 23 departments and seven UNC schools work together to make that happen, including researchers from fields as diverse as mass communications, city and regional planning, health behavior, nutrition, epidemiology, health behavior, biostatistics, psychology, medicine, biochemistry, and genetics.

In every department at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, faculty members and students conduct obesity-related research. The unique, collaborative atmosphere at UNC has allowed the School to be a global leader in understanding causes and consequences of obesity.

For example, at UNC, we are:

As a leader in moving from discoveries to community and policy solutions, the Gillings School’s focus is on solutions to real-world problems. School researchers influence local, state, national and global policies and strategies.

For example:

Most recently:

“Until now, EFNEP and SNAP-Ed have largely worked in parallel to reduce obesity in low-income populations, but the focus of this center will be to better coordinate efforts, enhance intervention approaches and assess impact,” said Dr. Ammerman, who is professor of nutrition in the Gillings School and director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP). “We will be able to gain valuable insights by
working together and strengthening the impact of all our activities to improve the health of children and families.”

Dr. Ammerman also co-leads a new research center funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop strategies to promote healthy food choices, particularly among the 50 million Americans receiving federal food benefits. The Duke-UNC USDA Center for Behaviorla Economics and Healthy Food Choice Researcher Center, established with a three-year, $1.9 million grant, is co-led by Dr. Matthew Harding, assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Since 2007, the number of Americans using USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps, has nearly doubled, reaching almost one-sixth of the U.S. population at an annual cost of $79 billion. In addition, 8.7 million Americans participate each month, on average, in the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC), more than half of whom are children.

“Our research will begin with ‘listening sessions’ with WIC and SNAP customers, retailers and program administrators to understand what needs and barriers they are facing,” Dr. Ammerman said.

Dr. Lytle says that even though most schools have adopted the program, the transition still needs encouragement.

“The new federal policy may be a carrot at the end of the stick that drives schools to make these important changes,” she said. “In addition to the stick-and-carrot, substantial tangible help in making the switch and incentives to sweeten the deal from state and federal sources are likely needed.”

Dr. Lytle’s commentary was a response to an article by Dr. Yvonne Terry-McElrath, published in the same issue of the journal and titled “Potential Impact of National School Nutritional Environment Policies Cross-Sectional Associations with U.S. Secondary Student Overweight/Obesity, 2008-2012.”