By Julie O’Connor and Philip Van Hulle

While obesity is a growing problem for all Americans, it poses a greater problem for African-Americans, particularly children and adolescents. There haven’t been many studies of interventions designed to prevent or treat obesity among this population, and those attempted have largely failed.

Sylvie Naar-King, Ph.D., professor of Pediatrics and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Obesity Research and Education at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, and her team are working to address this problem with support of a five-year, $5.7 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, both of the National Institutes of Health. The project, “Interventionist Procedures for Adherence to Weight Loss Recommendations in Black Adolescents,” brings together a multidisciplinary team of researchers specializing in adolescent health behavior change, motivation and learning, and provider-family interactions within urban populations.

In the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 were obese. In the 20-year period ending in 2008, the obesity rate in pre-school children jumped from 5 percent to 10.4 percent and the rate in elementary school students increased from 6.5 percent to 10.6 percent. Among teens between the ages of 12 and 19, obesity increased from 5 percent to 18.1 percent. Interestingly, 84 percent of parents believed their children were at a “healthy” weight, despite these findings.

Naar-King’s project aims to guide adolescents and their families through various sets of treatment options. Through these phases, the participants learn and practice skills that help them adhere to weight-loss strategies through healthier eating options and improved exercise programs. They are taught to trim about 500 calories from their daily food intake and to monitor physical activity levels.

In June of 2013, Wayne State’s Office of the Vice President for Research awarded a three-year, $900,000 research grant to Naar-King and James Granneman, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and director of the Center for Integrative Metabolic and Endocrine Research in Wayne State’s School of Medicine. This project, “WSU Diabetes Obesity Team Science,” a product of Wayne’s Multidisciplinary Research Group Incubator Program, will focus on addressing the challenges of obesity-related diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Granneman and Naar-King seek to expand existing collaborations and identify new synergies that will lead to additional grant applications across the spectrum of basic and translational research in the biomedical and behavioral sciences, with the goal of reducing obesity and metabolic disease. In addition, the team is working to advance the science of team science, education, training and the institutional reputation of Wayne State in this field of research.

“Through the efforts of both of these research projects, Naar-King and Granneman will impact the community of Detroit and beyond by not only increasing our understanding of the etiology of obesity, but also the individual differences in the health burden of obesity,” said Gloria Heppner, associate vice president for research at Wayne State University.