obesity research
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Here, we find out about the role that the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a publicly-funded institute, when it comes to funding obesity research in the U.S. today

The National Institute of Environmental Health While Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, makes use of technology and state-of-the-art science to find out the interplay between environmental exposures, human biology, genetics and common diseases to help improve human health and prevent disease. The NIEHS is dedicated to carrying out the most rigorous research in the environmental health sciences and to communicating this to the public, in the organisation’s capacity as a publicly-funded institute. (1)

On the website of the NIEHS, we find out that millions of people in the United States (U.S.) and globally are obese or overweight. Certainly, obesity is said to be a complex health disorder that affects people of all ages. For example, in the U.S., childhood obesity is a serious problem. Simply put, obesity means that one has too much body fat and it occurs over time when we consume more calories than we use.

One really important point is that being obese puts people at risk for many other health problems, such as arthritis, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, breathing problems and some cancers. Factors that contribute to obesity include one’s family history and genetics, metabolism, environment and behaviour or habits, for example. (2)

Today, scientists are starting to look into the notion that some chemicals in the environment could play a part in the growing obesity problem. Examples of chemicals that may be obesogens include cigarette smoke, air pollution, flame retardants, Bisphenol A, some pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls used in paints, types of cement, fluorescent light ballasts, sealants and adhesives. (3)

While obesity is indeed a serious issue, it’s not all doom and gloom. Certainly, we know that even modest weight loss can prevent or improve many of the health problems associated with obesity. Increased physical activity and behaviour changes, as well as dietary changes, are all factors that can assist people to lose weight.

Staying in this positive mindset, let’s look at some examples of NIEHS funded research in the field. In March this year, we discover that vitamin D may be protective among asthmatic obese children dwelling in urban environments with high indoor air pollution. This study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.

“What surprised us the most was that the findings of the study showed the effects were most pronounced among obese children,” said Sonali Bose, MD, Lead Author. “This highlights a third factor at play here – the obesity epidemic – and helps bring that risk to light when considering individual susceptibility to asthma,” she added. (4)

Another example of NIEHS funded research in the field can be found from March this year when we learn about an international study led by USC scientists, which tells us that toddlers with asthma are more likely to become obese children. This is the largest such study and focused on no less than 20,000 young people throughout Europe. Beyond wheezing and shortness of breath, the study said that asthma can lead to bodies that make young people more vulnerable to other health problems when they are older.

Lida Chatzi, Senior Author and Professor of Preventive Medicine at USC, believes that asthma and obesity raise a serious concern about a public health crisis. “We care about this issue because asthma affects approximately 6.5 million children – about one in 10 – in the U.S.,” Chatzi said. “It’s a chronic childhood disorder and if it increases the risk of obesity, we can advise parents and physicians on how to treat it and intervene to help young children grow up to enjoy healthy, adult lives.” (5)

As this article draws to a close, let’s briefly examine another study by scientists at the NIH and their collaborators, which discovered that young women with high body fat have a lower chance of developing breast cancer prior to menopause. This could help researchers to understand the role obesity plays in breast cancer risk better.

“Our finding that breast cancer risk is not increased in obese premenopausal women, and in fact decreases, points to the possibility that different biologic mechanisms are responsible for causing breast cancer in younger women,” said Dale Sandler, PhD, Co-Senior Author and Head of the Epidemiology Branch at the NIEHS.

NIEHS Staff Scientist, Katie O’Brien, PhD, who works in Sandler’s group commented that this work is a great example of how scientists can pool their resources to tackle important research questions in greater detail. Certainly, the examples in this article show how research into obesity is being supported in the U.S. today. “We hope this is the first of many studies to specifically focus on risk factors for breast cancer among young women,” she underlines. (6)


1. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/
2. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/obesity/index.cfm 3.https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/obesity/obesogens/index.cfm
4. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsroom/releases/2019/march8/index.cfm
5. https://news.usc.edu/150074/asthma-and-obesity-link-seen-in-children-in-europe-study/
6. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsroom/releases/2018/june27/index.cfm


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