One-third of U.S. adults, and an additional 17 percent of children and adolescents, are considered obese according to government body mass index guidelines.
But understanding the origins of obesity is a complex process. Studies increasingly indicate that there are many more influences on body weight than how much we eat or exercise.
A range of research initiatives led by Ohio State scientists shows that varied biological processes and specific areas of the brain also appear to influence the risk for obesity. Some studies suggest that the risk can be traced all the way back to the toddler years.
Here are some examples of how Ohio State is shedding new light on one of the nation’s most persistent health problems:
An epidemiologist in the College of Public Health has led a number of studies suggesting that parent-toddler relationships and everyday household experiences in young children's lives can influence the likelihood for obesity in childhood or even adolescence.
Neuroscientists have found that persistent exposure to light at night may lead to weight gain, even without changing physical activity or eating more food. The study in mice suggested that the animals ate at the wrong times to properly metabolize their meals. If similar results are confirmed in humans, it would suggest that late-night eating might be a particular risk factor for obesity.
Researchers in medicine and public health have identified a number of health problems associated with exposure to polluted air, including a higher risk for obesity. In one study, exposure to polluted air early in life led to an accumulation of abdominal fat and insulin resistance in mice even if they ate a normal diet.
A daily dose of safflower oil, a common cooking oil, for 16 weeks can improve such health measures as good cholesterol, blood sugar, insulin sensitivity and inflammation in obese postmenopausal women with Type 2 diabetes, according to Ohio State nutrition research. This finding came about 18 months after researchers discovered that safflower oil reduced abdominal fat and increased muscle tissue in this group of women after 16 weeks of daily supplementation.
Mathematicians, too, are trying to find what causes the birth of a fat cell. The research is intended to increase understanding of how and why pre-fat cells either lie dormant, copy themselves, or turn into fat. The scientists focused on three proteins that are known to have an impact on the fate of pre-fat cells. A better appreciation of how they work could help researchers more fully understand the causes of disorders associated with excess fat, including obesity and insulin resistance.