Obesity Research
Americans today are living longer and healthier than ever before. But the high rates of obesity among children as well as adults threaten to diminish these gains. As the nation’s medical research agency and the largest source of funding for medical research in the world, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been a driving force behind many decades of advances that have improved the health of people in every corner of America. The NIH is profoundly invested in research to reduce the individual and public health burden of obesity.

Research Improves And Saves Lives

  • Results from NIH-supported research have spared millions from suffering and improved the quality of life for even more. Because of NIH research, effective medicines and lifestyle changes have slashed rates of heart disease and stroke – and cut death rates from these conditions by 60 percent and 70 percent since 1940.
  • NIH research has also shown that type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented with lifestyle changes or medication.
  • Obesity research
    • Research provides the foundation of evidence for obesity prevention and treatment strategies, and for informing policy-making. Obesity research can help turn knowledge of human biology and behavior into improved intervention strategies. Researchers can identify factors in our environments that could be modified to be more conducive to healthy lifestyles. Researchers can design and test new prevention and treatment strategies, to see what works, and for whom. Researchers can also evaluate whether new policies and programs being implemented by communities are working and could be scaled-up. Multifaceted opportunities in obesity research are described in the Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research.

It Takes All Kinds Of Research

  • The NIH supports the full spectrum of research. Basic research studies may explore biologic mechanisms and pathways involved in obesity development by studying how genes, hormones, and cells affect our eating, metabolism, and energy expenditure. Basic research discoveries increase the understanding and knowledge of health and disease, and identify targets for new drug development or other strategies for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.
  • In clinical trials, participants are assigned to a treatment or approach (for example, a specific behavioral or environmental change, medication, or surgery) to prevent or treat a condition such as obesity. To determine how well the strategy worked, the researchers compare the participants' health outcomes to those of other participants who are assigned a different approach, such as standard care or a placebo (an inactive pill that looks like a medication being tested). The NIH also supports translational research, which serves to transform discoveries into medical practice or other settings, such as communities, schools, or work sites.
  • The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. Research studies are also sponsored or funded by various organizations such as foundations, medical institutions, voluntary groups, and industry as well as other federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • As Dr. Francis Collins, NIH director says, "It will take research on a wide variety of platforms to understand all the factors that play into obesity and which interventions actually work."

Research Advances In Obesity

  • The Weight of the Nation features dozens of experts in medicine, behavioral science, economics, policy, and other areas that are key to combating the obesity epidemic. Nearly two dozen of the experts who appear in the films are researchers supported by the NIH.
  • The films feature several NIH-funded clinical studies and trials that have formed the basis of scientific evidence on the causes and consequences of being overweight or obese, and the health benefits of losing excess weight.
  • Examples include:
    • The Bogalusa Heart Study, which examined the natural history of heart disease by following participants for more than 40 years, many starting in childhood. The landmark study found that overweight and obese children can develop risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, at a young age.
    • The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study, another long-term study that measures changes in heart disease risk factors.
    • The Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), which found that even moderate weight loss, through lifestyle changes, can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes in people at high risk for its development.
  • Other studies supported by the NIH are:
    • Finding that lifestyle changes that can be implemented effectively in communities to reduce weight, reduce risk factors for heart disease, and may prevent or delay type 2 diabetes
    • Finding that exposure in the womb to maternal obesity or diabetes may increase later risk of obesity or diabetes in offspring, suggesting that pregnancy may be a critical period for intervention
    • Discovering molecular signals and pathways that regulate body weight, involving the brain and hormones that travel between the brain and other organs and tissues, opening new avenues for prevention and treatment strategies
    • Investigating genetic factors contributing to obesity and its complications, leading to discoveries advancing understanding of how body weight is regulated and uncovering potential targets for intervention.
  • Although more than 80% of the NIH's budget goes to more than 300,000 research personnel at over 3,000 universities and research institutions across the United States and abroad, the NIH also conducts research in its own laboratories and clinical center.
  • In 2007, the NIH established a pioneering research center called the Metabolic Clinical Research Unit (MCRU), designed for the care and comfort of patients who volunteer to help scientists understand obesity causes, consequences, and treatment.
  • Studies being conducted at the MCRU have:
    • Discovered genes that influence obesity in children and adults
    • Found that artificial sweeteners may affect metabolism
    • Studied medications for obesity treatment in children
  • Current studies are investigating:
    • why some people are more likely to gain weight, including how the body and brain respond to different diets
    • what happens to your health when you are obese
    • how to prevent and treat obesity in children and adults

How To Participate In A Research Study

  • Clinical study volunteers are the backbone of medical research. Many types of people participate in clinical trials – men, women, and children from all racial and ethnic groups are needed to help advance research discovery to improve health.
  • There are basically two types of volunteers: healthy volunteers and patient volunteers.
    • A healthy volunteer is a person with no known significant health problems who participates in a clinical study. Research procedures with healthy volunteers are not designed to provide direct benefit to study participants.
    • A patient volunteer has a known health problem and participates in a study to help researchers better understand, diagnose, treat, or cure that disease or condition. Research procedures may or may not benefit the study participants.
  • Before joining a clinical study, a participant must qualify for it, based on certain inclusion and exclusion criteria for the study. These criteria are based on factors such as age, gender, the type and stage of a disease, previous treatment history, and other medical conditions.
  • Taking part in a clinical trial can have many benefits. If you're in a clinical trial and don't get the new strategy being tested, you may receive the current standard care for your condition. This treatment may be as good as, or better than, the new approach. You also will have the support of a team of health care providers, who will likely monitor your health closely.
  • Clinical trials can have some risks, too. These risks should be fully explained to you before you agree to participate. Each clinical trial has several types of scientific oversight to help ensure the safety of the study volunteers; in addition, participants have rights that help protect them. Protecting the safety of people who take part in clinical trials is a high priority for clinical researchers.
  • There are hundreds of NIH-funded clinical research studies on obesity and weight management currently being conducted around the country. You can search an online database of federally and privately supported clinical trials conducted in the United States and around the world or join a free, secure registry to be contacted by a researcher when a study matches what you are looking for. Both programs are supported by the NIH.
  • To find out more about research studies, and how to volunteer, visit the NIH Clinical Research Trials and You website.
  • To find stories about people who have volunteered for research studies, see http://www.nih.gov/health/clinicaltrials/stories/index.htm.
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