Researchers tackle obesity

May 15, 2003, vol. 27, no. 2
By Marianne Meadahl

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The problem of obesity is being brought down to size, as researchers across the country set out to tackle the many facets that underlie its causes.

SFU kinesiology professor Diane Finegood (left), scientific director of the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), institute of nutrition, metabolism and diabetes, says obesity is a problem of epidemic proportions.

A nationwide environmental scan of researchers, policymakers and stakeholder organizations undertaken last year concluded Finegood's institute should direct $15 million in research funds squarely at the problem.

The funds have now been awarded to a wide range of research projects across the country, together reflecting a strategy to combat obesity.

Finegood explains: “The argument is that obesity occurs because people eat too much and don't exercise. When energy intake exceeds what we expend, it leads to weight gain, in fact, even just 10 extra calories a day can mean gaining a pound a year. Compounded like a mortgage, that can be costly.

“But the root of the obesity problem lies much deeper than that. We need to address the question of how to effectively change people's behaviour.”

The research includes several projects, including a study of the impact of several candidate genes and their interactions with environmental determinants of obesity, such as dietary factors, physical activity habits and socio-economic factors.

Another will investigate behavioural, environmental and social determinants of obesity and the impact of interventions for the promotion of healthy weights.

A pilot project will assess parents' perceptions about preschool-aged children's physical activity and screen (TV, computer) viewing behaviours, while another will determine whether dietary fructose during infancy and childhood contributes to the development of obesity.

SFU kinesiologist Scott Lear is participating in the initiative and will investigate how the relationship between body fat and risk factors for heart disease differ between several Lower Mainland immigrant groups.

Finegood says the research addresses the reality that the problem of obesity remains prevalent across the life span.

“We can't afford to be complacent about this,” says Finegood, noting the correlations between excess weight and the potential for ill health. “Targeting obesity early in life has to be part of the equation.”

Finegood's own research on diabetes takes into consideration the problem of obesity.

She is investigating such questions as how obesity impacts the turnover of cells making insulin, and the role of glucose in the death of cells.

Finegood says a lot of new knowledge is emerging about physiological factors that control body weight, and adds the concerted effort now under way to focus on the problem will build on that.

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