Research in obesity and weight gain prevention: Identifying the X-factors

December 19, 2014
Dr. Shelly Nickols-Richardson

Caloric reduction, or taking in less energy than typically consumed, is a weight-loss strategy that is essentially guaranteed to work in the short term. But in the long term, this singular approach is impractical. Sharon M. (Shelly) Nickols-Richardson, Department Head and Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, notes that dietary interventions that only restrict caloric intake for body weight loss are “monumentally ineffective” because within three to five years, most adults return to their previous weight (or perhaps worse, move to a higher weight). In response, Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s approach to obesity and weight management research moves beyond a sole emphasis on diet to incorporate other factors that, in combination with diet, can lead to positive health outcomes. More than just diet matters, in Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s perspective; it is ‘diet + x’, where ‘x’ represents psychosocial and personal variables that interact with diet to impact obesity and weight management. Hunting for influential x-factors is only the first step; once identified, the next step in research is to understand how these variables can be adapted to reduce body fat, lower obesity, and improve the overall clinical picture of human health. With 67 to 75% of the U.S. population classified as overweight or obese, and thus susceptible to numerous obesity-related diseases, research that addresses obesity and weight gain prevention is critical to the nation’s health.

The goal of Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s research program is to identify determinants of obesity prevention and body weight regulation across the life span. By identifying optimal food intake and physical activity patterns that promote healthy body weight regulation, chronic diseases, ranging from metabolic syndrome to osteoporosis, can be reduced or prevented. In fact, it was Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s early research on osteoporosis that led to her interest in obesity research. The widespread notion that higher body mass was equated with better bone density did not hold true across all individuals with excess fat mass. Understanding these unusual findings led to early studies on weight loss and bone health in overweight and obese women. Dietary patterns, such as incarnations of the popular low-carbohydrate diets, can impact both osteoporosis and body weight and not always in a positive manner. As Dr. Nickols-Richardson was drawn further into obesity and weight regulation research, the influence of other factors (e.g., self-efficacy, self-regulation, habits, family, social support, internal motivation, near environment, food policy) on diet became increasingly apparent. Dr. Nickols-Richardson employs multiple theories of behavioral change – such as Social Cognitive Theory, the Theory of Planned Behavior, and the Health Belief Model – to explore multiple x-factors influencing weight management. Recognition of Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s research program is reflected her move from an Assistant Professor position at Virginia Tech to Associate Professor at both Virginia Tech and Penn State, then to Professor at Penn State and now to Professor and Department Head at the University of Illinois. Along the way, Dr. Nickols-Richardson has earned a variety of honors, such as the Emily Quinn Pou Professional Achievement Award from the University of Georgia. She has contributed to several committees and activities for federal organizations, including the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine, U. S. Department of Defense’s American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s research program has identified a number of x-factors influencing weight management – including nutrition education, sleep, culinary skills, consumption of snacks, and online resources. Surprising results from her latest study (along with her graduate student Catherine Metzgar) indicate that being accountable to others and social support are important factors in maintaining weight loss – a conclusion that stands in contrast to the common perceptions among popular weight loss program that personal accountability is sufficient for weight management. Also surprising are Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s future research plans. Rather than study weight loss in obese individuals, she will study weight gain prevention strategies in people who have never been overweight or obese and how to prevent further weight gain in individuals with higher body mass. Hidden within this research may be the x-factor(s) critical to obesity reduction and weight management for everyone.

More about Dr. Nickols-Richardson’s research can be found here


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