Reducing Obesity’s Growing Epidemic

By Marisa Ramirez

Finding yourself at the “top” isn’t always as great as it sounds.

For many years, Texas has ranked in the Top 20 of the most obese states in the country. Unfortunately, ‘bigger in Texas’ has come to mean … us. Obesity is an epidemic and a critical public health issue.

“During the last 40 years, we’ve seen obesity rates increase dramatically,” said Dan O’Connor, University of Houston associate professor of health and human performance and interim director of the Texas Obesity Research Center (TORC). “Being overweight or obese puts a person at risk for a lot of chronic, disabling diseases and premature death. And it’s all preventable.”

TORC opened its doors in 2007 as part of UH’s Department of Health and Human Performance. Now a University center, TORC is home to nearly two dozen diverse faculty affiliates who research obesity as a multi-faceted challenge influenced by social, cultural, environmental and policy issues.

“The reasons why we’re seeing such an increase in obesity are complex,” he said. “We sit in front of computers all day. Calorie-dense food is cheaper than fresh food. Traffic and construction may make it difficult to exercise outside. We need an interdisciplinary approach to combating obesity.”

It’s estimated that more than 31 percent of adult Texans are obese, as are 13 percent of children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, medical costs for those who are obese are $1,400 more per year.

“The center is completely focused on health, and our aim is to create research teams to study all these different aspects of the issue so we aren’t working in isolation,” O’Connor said. “While we collaborate with researchers and centers on campus, we also reach out to other universities and entities like the Texas Medical Center.”

Current projects are exploring weight management for women with mobility impairments, impact of drug abuse on nutrition and obesity, and teaching parents to feed their pre-school children by example. The largest grant to date is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The four-year, $4.25 million grant will create an evaluation method for three comprehensive childhood obesity programs in the country to provide recommendations to policymakers.

In addition to scholarly work, TORC is interested in nurturing the next generation of researchers. To date, TORC worked with eight doctoral students and six master’s degree candidates. With more than 100 publications, 20 external collaborators and 50 community partners, TORC is now recognized as a leader in interdisciplinary obesity research.

“My goal is to make UH the destination university for interdisciplinary and transformative health research,” O’Connor said. “It’s ambitious. But our success is critical.”


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