Battling childhood obesity

Cafeteria lunch
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Despite detailed nutrition labels, diet pills, and fitness clubs on every corner, our nation is getting heavier—and children are not exempt from this trend. "Over the past three decades, obesity has skyrocketed among American youth, says Leann Birch. "In fact, the number of obese children has doubled for preschoolers and adolescents and has tripled for children between the ages of 6 and 11."

Birch, distinguished professor of human development and family studies, has led a strong, interdisciplinary response to this epidemic. Last year, within the College of Health and Human Development, and with additional support from the Penn State's Children, Youth and Families Consortium (CYFC), Birch established the Center for Childhood Obesity Research (CCOR), which brings together many of the leading Penn State researchers with an interest in this critical issue.

To date, there are thirty primary collaborators from numerous departments and colleges at Penn State involved in CCOR. Together they've begun to conduct research that will create an evidence base—"something that hasn't really existed before"—for developing successful interventions to prevent childhood obesity. The Center's mission also includes the development of collaborations with public health professionals and Pennsylvania communities in the design and implementation of childhood obesity prevention programs around the Commonwealth.

Birch is the Center's first director and, under her leadership, researchers have centralized their efforts to obtain funding from foundations, industry, and federal government. So far, they have obtained several grants totaling more than $6 million to fund studies examining such areas as the development of eating behaviors in girls 5-15 years old; infant feeding and sleeping patterns; and the effects of energy density and portion size on pre-school children. Many of these studies are being conducted in Pennsylvania.

The CYFC strongly supports the CCOR's efforts as well and has contributed approximately $150,000 towards the Center's activities, including funding for a post-doctoral fellow.

Says Birch, "These efforts of the Children, Youth and Families Consortium and the Center for Childhood Obesity demonstrate the leading role a land-grant university can play in furthering our understanding of critical social issues and serving the needs of the community."

Leann Birch, Ph.D., is distinguished professor of human development;
llb15@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 19, 2007