Obesity research on campus

Temple researchers consider obesity to be an epidemic for children.

Jennifer Orlet Fisher, PhD, stands in the lobby of the Center for Obesity Research and Education on September 13, 2013. | Norah Gunn TTN

Since March 1, 2006, the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple has been conducting investigative research on the obesity epidemic, going behind the psychological, behavioral and physical effects of obesity, especially among young children.

Associate Professor of the Department of Public Health Jennifer Orlet Fisher, Ph.D, directs the Family Eating Laboratory, where she studies how different families and children behave with food.

“The center is meant to be an intercollege center that features multidisciplinary research that focuses on the causes, consequences and treatment of obesity, understanding why it’s bad, understanding how we approach it and how we prevent it,” Fisher said.

Obesity among individuals from lower socioeconomic statuses and public health are the main focuses of CORE’s research. Fisher is a nutritionist who mainly studies how obese children behave around food and the development of eating behaviors in infants and young children.

“Our work at the center is very population and community-based,” Fisher said. “We are in the business of behavior and are interested in work that translates basic biological behavioral science into interventions that specifically address obesity at populations [that are] at an elevated risk.”

“The center offers interventions to help treat or prevent obesity and improve children’s activity while increasing knowledge on eating behavior,” Fisher said. “Knowledge is important but not just enough to change our behavior. The psychology of how we act and lifestyle changes are more than just a diet to lose weight, and really moves them toward healthy behavior for a healthier outcome.”

The ultimate goal of Fisher’s research is to comprehend how early eating environments influence child behavioral controls of food intake and the resulting health outcomes, particularly in overweight children.

“It’s not what kids eat, but why kids eat what they eat,” Fisher said. “In a laboratory setting, we can study why children behave the way they do, and why one child may be open to new foods, but the other is so selective in their habits. Also, why some children seem to maintain a healthy weight in an environment that’s prone to obesity and why other kids seem more susceptible.”

The efforts of Fisher’s studies focus on the fundamental role of the family environment and how it affects the development of children’s early eating habits. CORE offers research training experiences to graduate and undergraduate students at Temple and is currently working with Ph.D. and master’s students.

“Students are a really important part of the work that we do,” Fisher said. “Providing students with high-quality research training and experiences is part of the reason we are in academics.”

The Center for Obesity Research and Education has seven faculty members that serve as investigators into the obesity epidemic among minorities of a lower socioeconomic status. The center receives grants from governmental programs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund research programs.

Currently, the center is working on a USDA-funded study focusing on mothers that are participating in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The study works with mothers to focus on how they feed their children.

“Most of us know we should be eating healthier,” Fisher said. “The goal is not to give our kids candy all of the time. The question is how do you do that and navigate through a normal day-to-day life at the table.”

Another USDA-funded study launched from CORE is based out of the school system in Philadelphia. The study collected data from 16 local schools to understand the role of breakfast in schools and children’s lives.

Jennifer Orlet Fisher, PhD, shows years of research with magazines stacked high at the Center for Obesity Research and Education. | Norah Gunn TTN
Years of research with magazines stacked high at the Center for Obesity Research and Education. | Norah Gunn TTN

“Some work suggests that kids perform better when they eat breakfast as opposed to skipping breakfast,” Fisher said. “The goal of the study is to understand the utility of the federal breakfast program. Half of the schools involved are doing business as usual however they administer school breakfast, while the other portion are doing a classroom breakfast, using the classroom breakfast to increase student’s participation in one healthy breakfast. Normally, kids eat about three mini meals before they get to lunch. We want to promote a healthy breakfast in the classroom, with the help of social marketing and nutrition education to reinforce those messages.”

The goals of CORE are to improve healthy eating behavior, particularly among young obese children. Backed by the federal government, CORE representatives said its intention is to provide useful tools to intervene on obesity in the hopes of providing useful information that helps fight obesity by offering solutions and alternatives.

“The tendency is to not really grow out of these behaviors, but to track them to later childhood and then to adulthood,” Fisher said. “We want to understand how to prevent obesity altogether.”

Shayna Kleinberg can be reached at shayna.kleinberg@temple.edu.

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