Tag Archives: obesity

Reprinted from College of Human Ecology's Alumni Profiles

by Stephen D'Angelo

Lindsay Dower ‘17 spent her four years at Cornell working to improve the lives of both those within the College of Human Ecology and in the broader Ithaca community, truly embodying the mission of the college.

As a Human Development major and Policy Analysis and Management minor, working towards a career in health policy, she pursued coursework that allowed her to better understand the human condition in the context of healthcare. Lindsay took full advantage of the opportunities within the college to create an undergraduate experience that intertwined courses in behavioral neuroscience with those in healthcare.

Dr. Valerie Reyna and Lindsay Dower '17

She joined Professor Valerie Reyna’s lab for Rational Decision Making during her freshman year after learning about Reyna’s work in an introductory Human Development course. Further, Lindsay served as a Cornell Cooperative Extension Intern during the summer of 2014, bringing evidence-based curricula developed in the lab to middle school-aged campers at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills. Through a series of hands-on activities, she delivered an obesity prevention intervention to the campers, while completing a randomized controlled trial to test the effectiveness of the curricula.

The following year, she gratefully received a Human Ecology Alumni Association Grant to continue studying how people make decisions about their eating and exercise habits. Lindsay’s research then expanded to include a project on investigating the decision making behind medication adherence in Type I and Type II diabetics. Her passion for the projects in the lab earned Lindsay the role of Undergraduate Team Leader of the Health and Medical Decision Making Team when she was a junior. Lindsay led a group of over ten undergraduates in the lab, serving as a resource to help them engage with the material in meaningful ways.

Outside of the classroom, Lindsay was very involved with Alpha Phi Omega, a national community service fraternity with a chapter on campus. As a member of APO, Lindsay served as chair for the Loaves and Fishes project, during which she and other members volunteered to serve free, hot meals to those who needed them most in downtown Ithaca. Additionally, she played the flute in the Big Red Pep Band during her time at Cornell.

By Caitlin Harder
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 20, 2014

Pawan Angara discusses his spotted wing drosphila research with College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Kathryn Boor. - Mark Vorreuter

Pawan Angara discusses his spotted wing drosphila research with College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Kathryn Boor. - Mark Vorreuter

On Oct. 7, 26 students from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and College of Human Ecology (CHE) gave one-minute “lightning” presentations on topics ranging from helping New York farmers adapt to climate change to market testing alternative sap products and offering classes to second-time parents.

The presentations were followed by a poster session that outlined what the students learned through research conducted during the Cornell Cooperative Extension Summer Internship Program.

Human Ecology Dean Alan Mathios and faculty member Gary Evans mingle with the Cornell Cooperative Extension interns. -Mark Vorreuter

Human Ecology Dean Alan Mathios and faculty member Gary Evans mingle with the Cornell Cooperative Extension interns. - Mark Vorreuter

Pawan Angara ’16 conducted research on spotted wing drosophila, an invasive species that lays its eggs in otherwise viable fruit, creating significant losses for organic farmers in the Hudson Valley. Angara spent his summer developing a gel that attracted the insects to a location where they could be exterminated.

Angara discovered that field research doesn’t always go as planned. “You have to adapt and work with the tools you have on hand, rather than what you wish you had,” he said. “I definitely was inspired by all the innovation I saw in the lab and the quick thinking that went on. When you’re in the field, you can’t just drive back to the lab to get something you forgot.”

This was his second summer participating in the program. “Every year I see more and more people doing great things for the community and great things for the world through research,” he said.

Lindsay Dower ’15 updated a curriculum on nutrition and fitness and taught modules to middle school children in Canandaigua. Applying the research of Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, Dower tested a theory that learning by understanding overarching ideas is more effective than memorizing facts. “I learned so much about the research process and, beyond that, how to work with different groups and types of people … and I definitely strengthened my leadership skills,” Dower said.  She is continuing her research in Reyna’s Laboratory for Rational Decision Making this academic year.

Food science major Susana Jimenez ’15 spent her summer in Wayne County working to increase participation of traditionally underrepresented Latino children in local educational opportunities. Building on the research of CHE senior lecturer Pilar Parra, Jimenez conducted interviews and focus groups and learned that parents and caregivers in the rural area showed high interest in extension programs. She identified and evaluated sites, learning that hosting programs in familiar spaces with established community leaders, such as Catholic churches, increased program participation. She said these groups wanted to learn about nutrition and food safety, but they were open to many of kinds of programs. “It’s not so much what you teach, but where and how,” she said.

Since its establishment in 2007, the Cornell Cooperative Extension Summer Internship Program has expanded from five student projects to 26.

Caitlin Harder is a writer intern for Cornell Cooperative Extension.


By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, June 19, 2014

Gary Evans


By age 2, poor children have gained more weight than those who are better off. But after age 2, neighborhood poverty, not family poverty, puts the pounds on, finds a new study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (35:3).

About one-third of America’s children are overweight or obese, but rates are highest among poor and minority children. The study identifies for the first time the effects of neighborhood-level poverty, family poverty and ethnicity on children’s weight, shedding new light on the origins of adult health disparities, the authors say.

“The effects of neighborhood poverty on children’s weight may be just as important as the effects of family poverty,” says Cornell’s Gary W. Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, who co-authored the study with Pamela Klebanov, Princeton University, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University.

“Children and families are embedded in neighborhoods; poor neighborhoods differ structurally from wealthier neighborhoods, with fewer safe and natural places to play and exercise, fewer supermarkets and more fast food,” Evans explains.

For their study, the researchers analyzed demographic factors and changes in body mass index (BMI) from ages 2 to 6 1/2 for nearly 1,000 children born with low birth weight. In typically developing children, BMI increases during the first year, then declines to a low point before increasing again in what is called adiposity rebound, usually between the ages of 5 and 7. Children who rapidly gain weight early in their first year or who have an early rebound are at risk for obesity throughout life.

Because they tend to gain weight more rapidly over their first two years to “catch up” with normal birth weight infants, low birth weight infants face higher risks for obesity, but being poor, a minority or living in poor neighborhoods adds to their disadvantage, the authors say.

Evans and colleagues found that the low birth weight toddlers from poor families already had higher BMIs than their wealthier counterparts by age 2, at which point the harmful effects of living in an impoverished neighborhood took over. The children in poor and near poor neighborhoods reached adiposity rebound more quickly, and their BMIs increased more rapidly compared to children from non-poor neighborhoods.

The team also found that African-American toddlers displayed an earlier adiposity rebound and greater subsequent BMI increases over time compared to Anglo-American toddlers. Hispanic-American children, on the other hand, had an atypical pattern in which their BMI increased steadily from birth, without exhibiting a decrease and rebound.

“Health disparities emerge early and shape lifelong health,” Evans says.

“Interventions need to address both the fundamental risk factors for pediatric obesity, such as poverty, chaotic living conditions and low parental education, as well as the mechanisms that appear to convey these risks, such as restricted access to healthy food, few safe and natural places to play, too much fast food, child food marketing and high levels of chronic stress, he concludes.

The study, “Poverty, ethnicity and risk of obesity among low birth weight infants,” was supported in part by the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:
Gary Evans
The Paper

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 20, 2013



Low-income children may be overweight in part because they have less access to open green space where they can play and exercise, reports a Cornell study of obesity in Europe published in Social Science and Medicine (December 2012; Vol. 75).

In the world's richest nations, growing up poor is linked to an increased risk of childhood obesity, putting disadvantaged children at higher risk for a lifetime of obesity and a host of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes later in life. One reason for this association may be inequities in access to green space, which, in turn, affect children's level of physical activity, the study found.

This is the first study to test the full model of the relationships among income, green space, physical activity and body mass index (BMI), the authors said.

The team analyzed data from a survey of European housing and health status that included 1,184 children, from 6 to 18 years of age, in eight European cities. The survey collected information on income, child body weight, height and physical activity, and observer ratings of open green space.

The researchers found that lower income children were more likely to live in neighborhoods with less open green space and that this correlated with reduced physical activity and higher BMI.

"Although our study suggests that children's differential access to space for outdoor physical activity plays some role in the prevalence of obesity, this is a very complex problem with multiple causes," said lead author Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

"It is important to take an ecological perspective in thinking about the challenge of childhood obesity," he added. "The environment, personality, culture, stress, family history and economics likely all play an important role."

"Given mounting evidence that adult obesity is rooted in child biology and experience, it behooves us to better understand who, where and how people and their surroundings coalesce to influence the probability of being overweight," he said.

Evans conducted the study with McKenzie Jones-Rounds, Ph.D. '12; Goran Belojevic, Fulbright scholar and professor of medicine at the University of Belgrade; and Francoise Vermeylen, statistical consultant in the College of Human Ecology.

The research was made possible by the Fulbright Scholar Program and by the Large Analysis and Review of European Housing and Health Status (LARES), conducted by the World Health Organization.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Susan Kelley
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, January 30, 2012



The more ongoing stress children are exposed to, the greater the odds they will become obese by adolescence, reports Cornell environmental psychologist Gary Evans in the journal Pediatrics (129:1).

Nine-year-old children who were chronically exposed to such stressors as poverty, crowded housing and family turmoil gain more weight and were significantly heavier by age 13 than they would have been otherwise, the study found. The reason, Evans and his co-authors suggest, is that ongoing stress makes it tougher for children to control their behavior and emotions -- or self-regulate. That, in turn, can lead to obesity by their teen years.

"These children are heavier, and they gain weight faster as they grow up. A very good predictor of adults' ability to follow healthy habits is their ability to self-regulate. It seems reasonable that the origins of that are probably in childhood. This [research] is starting to lay that out," said Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

Evans conducted the study with former students Thomas Fuller-Rowell, Ph.D. '10, now a Robert Wood Johnson postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Stacey Doan, Ph.D. '10, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston University.

The researchers measured the height and weight of 244 9-year-olds in rural New York state and calculated their various physical and psycho-social stressors -- for example, exposure to violence, living in a substandard house or having no access to such resources as books. They also measured the children's ability to delay gratification by offering them a choice between waiting for a large plate of candy versus having a medium plate immediately. The researchers measured the children's height and weight again four years later.

While the study doesn't prove that a child's inability to delay gratification causes her to gain weight, there's strong evidence to suggest that it does, Evans said. First, previous studies have shown that chronic stress is linked to weight gain in children and teenagers, and that children eat more sugary, fatty foods when stressed.

Second, there's a plausible neurocognitive mechanism that may help better understand this behavior, Evans said. "There's some evidence that parts of the brain that are vulnerable and sensitive to stress, particularly early in life, are some of the same parts involved in this self-regulatory behavior."

The study has implications for education policies such as No Child Left Behind that emphasize testing cognitive abilities but ignore children's ability to control their behavior and emotions, Evans said.

"A child's ability to self-regulate is not just predictive of things like whether you're going to have trouble with weight -- it predicts grades, graduating from high school. A 4-year-old's ability to self-regulate even predicts SAT scores. This is a very powerful phenomenon," he said.

The findings also have implications for interventions and policies aimed at reducing individual stressors. "If it's the cumulative impact of stress on these families that is important, that means an intervention that only looks at one stressor -- say, just drug abuse, which is how most interventions are designed -- is doomed to fail," Evans concluded.

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation, Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Through a novel alliance with local churches and health clinics, a multidisciplinary team of Human Ecology and Weill Cornell investigators are striving to reverse the odds and reduce obesity and obesityrelated deaths in black and Latino adults in Harlem and the South Bronx.

For two years running, the Bronx has attained an unwelcome distinction: the unhealthiest of all 62 counties in New York. High rates of adult and childhood obesity, especially in the South Bronx, have helped plunge the borough to the bottom of the findings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. A few miles west, across the Harlem River, the proportion of overweight and obese residents in Central and East Harlem is similarly high—about 6 in 10 adults and more than 4 in 10 children.

As a result, these low-income neighborhoods, largely African American and Latino, show disproportionately high rates of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and a host of other chronic health conditions related to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles. Perhaps most distressing, however, are the environmental, cultural, and economic influences that promote obesity in these neighborhoods: a surplus of fast food restaurants and a shortage of fresh produce and other healthy options; limited access to parks and affordable recreation; and unusual work, family, and social strains.

Read the full article from Human Ecology, 39(1)

Would  rewards or penalties work better for encouraging people to buy healthy food?  Will involving a person's family or faith-based social network improve an obesity intervention? How can state-of-the-art technologies be leveraged to measure people's exposure to stressors reliably and effectively, to help researchers study the links between stress exposure and health outcomes?

These are but a few of the questions that Elaine Wethington is tackling with her colleagues. She is playing a central role in three new prestigious grants which bring together accomplished interdisciplinary teams of scientists from economics, psychology, sociology, nutrition, marketing, epidemiology, and statistics. Wethington is a medical sociologist who is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Human Development and of Sociology. She is an expert in the study of stress and health and in translational research methods. Her major research interests are in the areas of stress and the protective mechanisms of social networks. She is co-director of the new Translational Research Institute on Pain in Later Life (funded by the National Institute on Aging and directed by Dr. Cary Reid of the Weill Division of Geriatrics), as well as the director of its Pilot Studies program.

A five-year, $6 million dollar grant will fund the Cornell Center for Behavioral Intervention Development to Prevent Obesity, a collaboration between Cornell University in Ithaca and the Weill Cornell Medical College. The goal of the new Center will be to translate basic behavioral and social science discoveries into effective behavioral interventions that reduce obesity and obesity related diseases in Black and Latino communities. The team will focus on behavior changes, not dieting - testing personalized strategies aimed at reducing weight and increasing physical activity in a way people can maintain over time.

In this project, Wethington will contribute her expertise to developing and designing the interventions, analyzing the results of participant interviews, and examining the impact of stressor exposure on the success of interventions. Dr. Mary Charlson, professor of integrative medicine at Weill leads the project. Other team members include Carol Devine, Division of Nutritional Sciences; Brian Wansink, Department of Applied Economics and Management; Martin Wells, Statistical Sciences; and Drs. Carla Boutin Foster, Erica Phillips-Cesar, Walid Michelen, and Bala Kanna from Weill Cornell. Harlem and South Bronx community health clinics affiliated with the Weill health system are participating as full partners in the development studies.

Another new study will team up researchers from the College of Human Ecology and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to explore strategies for influencing eating behavior. The work is supported by a nearly $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The research team will study how how shoppers respond to having easy to understand nutritional information available and to food pricing. Answers to these questions will shed light on the potential effectiveness of pricing policies designed to curb America’s appetite for “junk food.” Brian Wansink, Professor of Applied Economics and Management, leads the project. Wethington will focus on analyzing findings, as well as on developing the sampling, recruitment, and retention efforts for the study.  Other team members include John Cawley, Policy Analysis and Management; Jeffery Sobal from the Division of Nutritional Sciences; and David Just, William Schulze and Harry Kaiser from the Department of Applied Economics and Management.

In an existing 4-year grant from the National Institute for Drug Abuse, Wethington is collaborating with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University to develop valid, reliable, yet cost-effective instruments to measure chronic stress exposure in field studies. The instruments include hand-held devices for assessing chronic stress exposure and a web-based retrospective interview to assess stress exposure over a one-year period.  These instruments are being developed to support research on how stress affects health outcomes and how such effects are influenced by genetic factors. In this study, Wethington's contribution is focused on developing the web-based retrospective interview.  The team is led by Prof. Thomas Kamarck of the University of Pittsburgh Psychology department; team members include Drs. Barbara Anderson and Saul Shiffman at the University of Pittsburgh, and Drs. Daniel Sieworek and Asim Smailagic at Carnegie-Mellon.

These and other recent grants demonstrate the interest funders have in research that spans disciplines and translates basic behavioral and social science discoveries into effective behavioral interventions.

"The National Institute of Health recognizes that the 'team approach', involving established experts from multiple disciplines, has proven effective for tackling tough problems in health care and delivery, such as health disparities" states Wethington. "For some issues, such as reliable measurement of stressor exposure, social and psychological scientists are being encouraged to collaborate with computer scientists and engineers are developing health promotion and tracking devices. Social scientists who measure and study population health are being encouraged to collaborate with community health workers, health clinics, and frontline service agencies."

Effective collaboration strategies are the keys to success.Wethington adds: "No one discipline has the answer to every question. This is an exciting and rewarding time to be a health researcher.  You feel like you may be making a long-lasting contribution to the well-being of the population, while also benefiting from learning new things yourself."

Further Resources

Wethington, E., Breckman, R., Meador, R., Lachs, M. S., Carrington Reid, M., Sabir, M. & Pillemer, K. (2007).  The CITRA Pilot Studies Program:  Mentoring Translational Research.  The Gerontologist, 47, 845-50.

Wethington, E. & Pillemer, K.  (2007).  Translating Basic Research into Community Practice:  The Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging (CITRA). Forum on Public Policy Online, Winter 2007.