Childhood obesity may no longer be a new concept, but the prevalence is higher than ever, and statistics show that Cabarrus County sits above the national and state averages for kids who are dangerously overweight.
An ongoing study at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis hopes to take a dive into children’s health and nutrition and what might lead some to gain excess weight and others not to. The children’s health study is currently looking for children and their families to participate.
“I think this is something that needs to be done,” Dr. Saroja Voruganti with the UNC NRI at the Research Campus said. “I’m very excited. This is our chance to make a difference in the community. I just hope more people are aware of it and can come.”
The study started about a year ago and has already seen 200 people. Voruganti and her team and recruiting children ages 5 to 19 years old as well as their families; she said the more in the family that can participate the better. The idea is to find patterns in the genome that might predispose people to obesity or not, and those repetitions are easier to find when families participate together, she said.
All participants will be paid for their effort.
Voruganti said the study includes one office visit—preferably in the morning since fasting is required—where participants will answer a series of questions on health, diet and exercise. Researcher will take height and weight, blood pressure, blood and urine samples. From the blood work, researchers extract DNA and look for biomarkers that might indicate a higher risk of a variety of health issues.
“We do a lot of statistical analysis and see if people having certain genotypes are at high risk for, let’s say diabetes or something,” Voruganti said. “We also, once we find that, then we also look for nutritional patterns, or physical. Maybe nutrition can aggravate what is already there. So we can look at whether, oh, have then been eating one sort of food to much, have they been eating a balanced diet or drinking soda. We try to make it an all-around overall so that we understand everything that’s going on.”
Eventually, Voruganti said, she hopes to translate the research into a public health initiative.
“If we find out that people of certain genotypes seem to be of high risk irrespective of things, genes do interact with environment, so people with they have this genetic susceptibility, but they can do something about diet and physical activity to lower the risk,” she said. “It may not completely go away, but they can lower the risk. And then it can start to at least get better. Most of these problems, the trouble is they can carry into adulthood if they don’t take care of them [in childhood].”
Families who participate in the study, however, get some of this advice in real-time. Voruganti said they try to give everyone some tips on how to tweak things going forward.
One of the biggest educational elements is in food serving sizes. Voruganti said they have models to show how many carrots or cookies are technically one serving.
“Take a donut,” she said. “It’s this big now. It’s actually two serving sizes, but nobody knows that. They think they only ate one donut. When they are looking at the food, and we’ll say thing about how much did you eat? Did you eat this ball or this size of food? So then some people say, ‘Oh, that’s a serving size? We never realized. It looks so tiny.’ ”
Voruganti said one thing she has noticed so far is that most people have every intention of eating healthy and exercising, but they’re just not quite sure how, or their situation isn’t overly conducive to it.
“Sometimes money is a problem; high fat food is cheap,” she said.
One man she spoke with didn’t eat until 1 or 2 in the afternoon—no lunch or breakfast, just a cup of coffee. Voruganti said he thought he was doing OK because he at least wasn’t putting in calories, but she said the body doesn’t work like that.
“When they get to 2 p.m., they’ll be so hungry, they’ll eat more,” she said. “It’s not good for the body. But then I realized it’s very easy for me to tell don’t do this, but I’m not the one in his position. So once we have enough data, then we can think about coming up with some ideas that would be practical and say, OK, you can’t do this. At least do this.”
Voruganti said she wants the recommendations that come out of the study to be practical and doable for the average person. Telling someone who currently does no physical activity and works two jobs and a family to somehow fit in an hour of exercise every day might not be feasible; suggesting they walk for five minutes a day, however, might be.
“We’ve got to be practical, realistic,” she said. “If we tell people to completely change, it’s not going to happen. But first we need to get all the data. This study is an attempt to get all the data.”