​It takes a ton of effort, coming from many directions, to tackle a big problem like obesity.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, 34 percent of Americans age 20 and older are obese and another 34 percent are overweight. Nearly 20 percent of youths ages 6 to 19 in the U.S. are obese, triple the rate of a generation ago.

Using strategies informed by biochemical, health and other research, efforts to reverse those trends focus on two key tactics:

  1. Help people make smart food choices.
  2. Help people be more physically active.

While First Lady Michelle Obama and others take the lead nationally, students and faculty from around the California State University advance the cause through community outreach and research projects.

San Diego State University health psychologist James Sallis was among roughly a dozen experts invited to the White House in July 2009 to brief Obama as she prepared to launch her campaign against child obesity. Sallis’ research focuses on environmental and policy factors related to physical activity among youth. On May 10 he received the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. (This SDSU report includes a video.)


Other CSU students and faculty engage in various efforts to help Americans prevent or lose excess weight. Examples (listed below) range from using stem cells to study fat buildup and breakdown at a Cal Poly Pomona lab to planting “woolly gardens” on school playgrounds near CSU Northridge to boost children’s nutrition.

Major funding for many CSU projects comes from the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies and foundations. For example, since 2008 NIH has awarded more than $8.5 million to support anti-obesity work at San Diego State University.

Here are some of the ways the CSU is helping address issues of obesity and excessive weight in America (click on links for details):

At CSU Fullerton, by investigating Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS), a genetic disorder that causes an insatiable appetite; by working to combat obesity in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala; and by developing community partnerships and gathering baseline data about obesity-related influences among Pacific Islander youth in Southern California to support future research and intervention efforts.

At CSU Northridge, by helping senior citizens and others exercise safely in parks and by helping schools promote nutrition for families. A three-pronged approach is taken at the schools: Establish a “peaceful playground” that encourages more truly physical activity, and invite families to use it. Develop nutrition education that includes vouchers to the local farmers market. Create a vertical “Woolly” garden that conserves valuable green play space by growing on fencing.

At San Diego State, by promoting nutrition and combating obesity, particularly among Latino youth in low-income communities . For example, a five-year study is testing various interventions to lower body mass index and reduce weight among nearly 400 overweight 6- to 9-year-olds, along with their parents. Another engages orthodontists and their office staff to promote nutrition among adolescents.

At Cal Poly Pomona, by conducting stem-cell research into the development of fat cells and related investigations into how exposure to a widely used chemical (bisphenol, or BPA) may foster fat production, and into the potential of an inflammation-suppressant found in plants (resveratrol ) to help treat obesity and osteoporosis in humans. (For more, see this blog note.)

At Cal State L.A., by helping Mexican American women with eating disorders adopt lasting, positive behaviors that support weight loss. The project will develop an accessible, guided self-help treatment program for women with bulimia, binging and other concerns. It will be based on cognitive behavior therapy, cultural factors, focus groups, feasibility trials and other research.

At CSU Long Beach, by recruiting and preparing new health professionals to address nutrition and obesity in Latino communities, particularly among children. A $3.75 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant expands upon a previous USDA-funded program to reduce the risk of child obesity.

At CSU San Bernardino, by testing the use of active, sports-simulation video games to fight child obesity The research, led by Bryan Haddock at CSUSB’s Institute for Child Development and Family Relations, was mentioned in U​SA Today.

At CSU Chico, by encouraging immigrant and refugee families—and their young children—to eat more locally grown ethnic produce. “Hmong and Latino immigrants bring with them unique perspectives, skills and traditions that have the potential to make significant contributions to the prevention of childhood obesity among their own and other ethnic groups,” said Keiko Goto, a co-director of the project.

At CSU Bakersfield, by explaining the links between economic insecurity and obesity. From the CSUB Business Blog: “Researchers calculated that emotional anxiety explained two-thirds of the incidence of obesity; and increased consumption of cheap, fatty, and high-sugar foods accounted for the remaining one-third of occurrence of obesity.”

At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, by engaging students in research and outreach, and by collaborating with community partners through STRIDE, the center for Science Through Translational Research in Diet and Exercise. Learn more from “A Closer Look.”

—Sean Kearns

More on obesity from Science & the CSU: