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Professor’s Work Builds Heavy Metals Research in Uruguay

Dr. Kasia KordasMost scientists see members of their research team on a daily basis, but not Dr. Kasia Kordas. Kordas, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, has always been interested in working internationally and helping other institutions improve their own research programs. For four years she has been building up a research program in Montevideo, Uruguay, and the majority of her research takes place there today. Stationed at the Catholic University of Uruguay, researchers in Kordas’ lab study the effect of iron deficiency and lead toxicity on behavioral and cognitive development in children. Read more.

Center's Unconventional Services Provide Unique Approach to Nutrition Research

Researchers in Penn State’s Diet Assessment Center (DAC) have an unusual approach to conducting research: they like to surprise their participants. They’ve taken this approach since the DAC was created, and it’s one of the center’s main assets. Read more.

Animal Studies Leading to Insights in Obesity, Cancer, and the Immune System

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, and obesity increases the risk of many types of cancer, including breast, prostate, colon, and pancreas. Past research indicates that the immune system plays a critical role in controlling tumor growth, too. However, very little work has been done to examine the effect of obesity on immune function, in general, and in particular on anti-tumor immunity.

“Understanding the long-term health consequences of obesity on immune function may provide critical insight in preventing and treating many forms of cancer in the future,” says Dr. Connie Rogers, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and the Broadhurst Career Development Professor for the Study of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Using rodent models, Rogers and her research team have demonstrated that obesity can impair the adaptive and innate immune processes that are important in controlling tumor growth and in generating immunological responses to vaccination.

After demonstrating this, Rogers wanted to conduct more research that would have clinical implications. She sought to understand whether obesity-induced immune impairments were reversible with weight loss, and whether the method of weight loss (diet, exercise, or both) would impact immune responses.

Rogers found that exercise, alone or in combination with diet, significantly enhanced innate and adaptive immunity, whereas diet alone did not. These findings suggest that the immune impairments observed in obese mice can most effectively be reversed by exercise or a combination of diet and exercise, but not by dietary changes alone.

Rogers is continuing her research to determine the biological mechanisms by which obesity impairs adaptive immune processes. She also seeks to determine the cellular and molecular processes that may be underlying the immune enhancing effect of exercise.

Ongoing Childhood Obesity Research

Childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past thirty years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; in 2008, nearly 20 percent of children age 6-11 were considered obese. Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, has spoken out frequently this year regarding childhood obesity. In February, the Let’s Move campaign was launched. Her Childhood Obesity Action Plan was unveiled in May. It is becoming more urgent to find ways to reduce obesity in children, and the Department of Nutritional Sciences is involved in a wide range of studies in this area.

Center for Childhood Obesity Research

Dr. Leann BirchPenn State’s College of Health and Human Development has been a leader in this area since 2005 with the creation of the Center for Childhood Obesity Research, which is directed by Dr. Leann Birch, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and professor of nutritional sciences. The center’s focus on childhood obesity research draws on existing college strengths, provides a focus for building new collaborations, and attracts resources and national recognition.

The top priority for the center is to conduct research that will contribute to the evidence base for the development of successful childhood obesity prevention programs. The center aims to make changes at multiple levels of society, from the family unit to the community at large.

Ongoing projects include:

  • An investigation of relations among feeding, sleeping, and growth in infants during the first year of life, and their subsequent influence on children’s eating, growth, and weight status
  • Research on the effects of altering energy density and portion size of meals and snacks on preschool children’s energy intake.
  • A ten-year longitudinal study of the development of the controls of food intake among young girls, with a focus on the emergence of weight concerns; dieting; and problems of energy balance, including childhood obesity and disordered eating. This research is also designed to contribute to our understanding of how girls’ weight status is linked to their developing sense of self during middle childhood.

Webhealth, an Online Intervention

Dr. Barbara Lohse, RD, associate professor, and Dr. Jill Patterson, assistant professor, have been working on a multistate grant funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is testing the effectiveness of behavior change in preventing obesity in young adults. Nine researchers from eight universities developed, piloted, and evaluated an online education intervention called Webhealth, which emphasized a non-dieting approach to weight maintenance and obesity prevention.

The intervention focused on enhancement of self-regulation through avoidance of dieting, increased awareness of hunger and satiety, and respecting one’s own and others’ body size. Additionally, the intervention encouraged enjoyable physical activity. The researchers studied body mass index (BMI), fruit and vegetable consumption, perceived activity level, aerobic capacity, and self-reported behaviors such as disinhibition and quality of life indices in more than 1,600 college students.

Patterson and Lohse have finished collecting data and are now submitting their results for publication. If successful, the intervention could provide another means for reducing obesity.

Dr. Claudia ProbartNutrition Education in Schools

Dr. Claudia Probart, RD, associate professor, frequently gives advice on state and federal school health-related policy issues. She currently has five projects including several directly related to childhood obesity. She is the principal investigator on a study promoting nutrition education and physical activity in Pennsylvania schools. This is an ongoing study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add programs to schools to prevent childhood obesity.

Read more about Probart’s research.

Adults’ Roles in Preschoolers’ Eating Habits

Researchers in Pennsylvania Nutrition Education TRACKS have been interviewing low-income mothers and caregivers in urban areas to find effective ways to improve preschoolers’ nutrition. TRACKS is a statewide program that provides nutrition assistance and education to low-income families and it is directed by Dr. Barbara Lohse, RD, associate professor.

In one project, Lohse and two other TRACKS researchers—Dr. Alison Ventura, and Dr. Judy Gromis, RD—looked at parents’ feeding styles and found major differences among races and ethnicities. They assessed feeding techniques, decision-making processes, and demands placed on children. This information can be used to develop an intervention that can be tailored for specific populations.

Pennsylvania Nutrition Education TracksIn another project, Lohse; Gromis; and Christine Least, RD, interviewed low-income caregivers of preschool children to develop a nutrition education program. This initiative is based on Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR), which presents the idea that caregivers are responsible for deciding what foods are offered, when meals and snacks are given, and where feeding and eating takes place. Children, in turn, decide for themselves how much to eat, and even if they want to eat.

“Exposing children at an early age to feeding patterns that align with the Satter Division of Responsibility can help to prevent obesity later in life,” says Lohse. Participants gave feedback on whether they agreed with certain statements about feeding their preschooler and provided information on their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and practices with mealtimes and snack times in their homes. Using this feedback, Lohse and her team aim to improve an existing nutrition education program to be more in line with DOR principles.