When it comes to reducing obesity rates in Northeast Tennessee, Randy Wykoff has a method –– research, teaching and awareness.
“Obesity is important for research,” said Wykoff, dean of the East Tennessee State University College of Public Health. “It’s important for education. Obesity is a problem in Tennessee. It’s especially a problem in our region. The college has taken it seriously.”
A recently awarded National Institutes of Health grant for nearly $1 million to the College of Public Health will be used to counsel area high school freshmen about healthy choices. The lead investigator on this project is Debbie Slawson, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and also a registered dietician.
She said the grant allows college students to work as peer counselors at local schools guiding students on how to eat better and live healthier.
“Not so much to encourage dieting, but rather choose more wisely,” Slawson said of the intent of the grant. The grant is funded for three years.
“And we’re going to be following students up to one year to see if the interventions made a difference,” Slawson said.
Slawson, who became the lead investigator on the grant after its author Tiejian Wu recently died, said she will identify participant schools in the coming year and begin “ramping up” the program in January.
“One of our goals as a college is to address the health challenges of our region and our state, and I think this is a really good example of how we can do that and really make a difference,” Wykoff said of the peer counseling study.
Slawson said an important component of any community outreach program attacking obesity is to recognize that each community is different and should be treated as such. Some communities may not have regular opportunities to play outside. Others may not be able to afford pricier healthy food options.
“We’re not going to just come in and say this is what we’re going to do and that’s the end of it,” Slawson said of how those working with the counseling grant will proceed.
The reasons for obesity are complex, Slawson said. Factors for the condition include easy access to fatty foods, distorted food portions and commonplace sedentary lifestyles. It is that complexity that makes it tough to fight obesity.
“You could almost call it a toxic environment we’re dealing with,” Slawson said.
In addition to community-based research like Slawson’s, Wykoff said the college is doing extensive laboratory research on obesity.
“I like to go bench to bedsides to backroads,” Wykoff said of how he approaches public health. The “bench” refers to the work being done in the laboratory. And the College of Public Health has several obesity-themed research projects in the lab, including a study identifying demographic risk factors for pediatric obesity, a study analyzing reductions in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children in Tennessee and an analysis of the Tennessee Coordinated School Health BMI reports from 2007 and 2008.
As far as awareness and the “backroads” approaches Wykoff advocates, his college has Liang Wang, who presented a paper on breastfeeding and the development of childhood obesity, and two doctoral students doing field placements in American Samoa that will focus, in part, on obesity.
Wykoff said the research done by students is of great importance.
“They’re going to be seeing the diabetes,” Wykoff said. “They’re going to be seeing the heart disease. They’re going to be seeing the increased cancer rates.”
But it is not just the College of Public Health that is conducting research on obesity. The College of Nursing has Joellen Edwards, associate dean for research, who has conducted research on increasing physical activity to reduce obesity among in women who live in rural areas.
Nursing’s Kathleen Rayman, director of graduate nursing programs, has conducted research on self-management of diabetes in women. And Helene Holbrook, coordinator of the doctor of nursing practice program, who also conducts research on diabetes.
Obese patients are at a greater risk for developing diabetes and other diseases.
At the College of Medicine, two recent studies include, Dr. Charles Stuart’s project to study exercise training in people with pre-diabetes. Mike Stone, the exercise and sports science laboratory director in the university’s department of kinesiology, leisure and sport science, is collaborating on this study.
The College of Medicine’s Dr. Karen Schetzina has been in the news recently for the study of obesity, too.