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Breaking the cycle of obesity

Research Week 2019: Understanding biological, social and environmental contributors may help kids live healthier lives
Janne Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D.
Janne Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D., researches obesity, applying known biological drivers and identifying environmental or behavioral intervention targets that can modify them. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

In 2006, nearly 35% of U.S. adults had obesity, or maintained a weight higher than what is considered healthy for a given height.

This data signaling a nationwide epidemic inspired Janne Boone-Heinonen to obtain a Ph.D. in nutrition epidemiology, and dedicate her career to preventing obesity.

“There are so many children at high risk of obesity today,” says Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D., an associate professor of epidemiology in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. “We are learning more and more about the biological drivers of obesity, from neuronal mechanisms to hormonal regulation, but, we need a better understanding of how to intervene and address this challenge at a societal level.”

And this is exactly what her research aims to do: apply what is known about biological drivers of obesity and identify environmental or behavioral intervention targets that can modify them.

According to Boone-Heinonen, some biological drivers could begin before an individual is born.

“Children may be predisposed to obesity-promoting nutritional behaviors as a result of prenatal exposures,” she says. “This means that things such as appetite regulation can be passed from generation to generation through mechanisms other than genetics. We need to catch this cycle and stop it.”

So, where do you start? With the kids.

While parents certainly play a critical role in ensuring the health and nutrition of their children, Boone-Heinonen says changing behavior in adults can be challenging.

Janne Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D. and jennifer seamans looking over paperwork
Janne Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D., (left) works with Jennifer Seamans, MPH/Ph.D. candidate, (center) reviewing her project data. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

“Patterns have already been shaped over many years as the result of an unhealthy food environment where obesity has become a natural outcome,” she explains. “With kids, we have an opportunity to intervene early and counterbalance what we think is going on biologically with what we are pretty sure is going on socially and environmentally, and then create a new path forward.”

One of Boone-Heinonen’s ultimate goals is to provide the scientific evidence necessary to change what our communities look like. She notes that while the field has already completed much work to help begin the process, much more is necessary to impact overall outcomes.

Programs such as school-based gardens and regulating food advertising and pricing strategies will help to promote general enjoyment of fresh and healthy food at an early age and support positive decision making, she adds, but we also need to learn as a society to recognize and use insights from the most vulnerable children.

“While most policy and recommendations are designed based on population averages, our emerging understanding of the early development of appetite regulation and reward systems suggests that the most vulnerable should be given a louder voice in developing policies and recommendations that shape the food environment.”

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The journey remains long, but Boone-Heinonen is motivated by collaboration, particularly the notion that breaking the cycle of obesity will require multiple research disciplines to work together in new ways.

She’s also inspired by her own family.

“Being in an environment with children reminds me that it’s our responsibility as a community to provide a healthy start to life,” she says. “I am hopeful that with growing understanding about how susceptibility to obesity develops in early life, we’ll be able to be more precise in the supports that children need.”

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