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Questions and Answers

What is the purpose of the Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) developed the Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research to encourage new scientific investigations to combat the obesity epidemic. The strategic plan will serve as a guide to accelerate progress in obesity research, from basic discovery to the development of more effective prevention and treatment strategies, to the integration of these strategies into clinical practice and community settings. Published in 2011, the new strategic plan reflects the exciting opportunities that have emerged since the NIH published the first strategic plan for research on this major public health challenge.
NIH-funded research will continue building on emerging discoveries to develop new approaches and provide a sound evidence base for what works to reduce obesity, so that people can look forward to healthier and more fulfilling lives.

What are the goals of the plan?

The efforts of many individuals and institutions are essential to reducing the prevalence of obesity – including government, businesses, community organizations, healthcare professionals, schools, and families. Research can provide the foundation for these efforts. As the country's medical research agency, the NIH funds a spectrum of research to reduce the prevalence and burden of obesity.
Research can lead to a better understanding of the causes and consequences of obesity and will give us the evidence for what works to prevent and treat obesity. In addition, research will help us reduce health disparities and inform policies.
Researchers seek to answer many questions, for example:

  • How can we increase and use our knowledge of human biology and behavior to develop new and more effective prevention and treatment approaches?
  • What aspects of our community environments and daily lives contribute to unhealthy eating and insufficient physical activity—and what can we change to make it easier for people to achieve a healthy weight?
  • How can we rigorously evaluate interventions—whether based on individual lifestyle changes, pharmacological or surgical approaches, community-based programs, policy changes, or other environmental changes—to determine which really work?
  • How do we scale up the approaches that show promise and expand those proven effective, in order to reach more people?
  • Given that no single intervention will solve this complex problem, how can we continue to develop new and innovative approaches?
We hope that the plan will serve as a guide to accelerate progress in obesity research, and that this research will ultimately help extend healthy life and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.

How was the strategic plan developed?

The NIH Obesity Research Task Force developed the plan with crucial input from scientists outside the NIH, professional scientific and other health-focused associations, and the public, by asking for comments on an initial draft and revised draft on the NIH website. The individuals and organizations that provided input represent a broad range of expertise and areas of interest. Research advances and opportunities published in the scientific literature and presented at NIH workshops and national meetings also helped shape the strategic plan and will continue to inform NIH research planning.

The NIH Obesity Research Task Force is co-chaired by Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; Dr. Susan B. Shurin, acting director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and Dr. Alan E. Guttmacher, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. These three institutes, along with the National Cancer Institute, led in the plan’s development, and over 20 other NIH institutes, centers, and offices contributed as members of the Task Force.

Why create a strategic plan for obesity research?

More than one-third of American adults and nearly 17 percent of children are now obese. Obesity increases a person’s chance of developing many health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, respiratory problems (e.g., asthma and sleep apnea), and some cancers. Obesity adversely affects people's quality of life and exacts a substantial economic toll on the nation from healthcare costs and lost productivity. In 2008, obesity-related medical costs were an estimated $147 billion.

Obesity arises from a complex interplay of forces and affects some populations disproportionately. We need to take a multifaceted approach to combat it. Simply telling people to "eat less and exercise more" is not enough.

Research is the foundation for finding viable solutions. Research allows us to explore the roles that genetics and biology, our environment, and our lifestyles play in obesity – and to transform that knowledge into better prevention and treatment strategies. Through research, we rigorously evaluate interventions to see which ones really work and who can benefit most.

What are the main research areas emphasized in the plan?

The strategic plan is framed around six overarching research areas, or themes:

  • Discovering key processes that regulate body weight and influence behavior
  • Understanding the factors that contribute to obesity and the consequences of obesity
  • Designing and testing new approaches for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Evaluating promising strategies for obesity prevention and treatment in real-world settings and diverse populations
  • Using technology to advance obesity research and improve healthcare delivery
  • Facilitating the integration of research results into communities and clinical practice
Furthermore, research to identify and reduce health disparities is essential to all themes described in the strategic plan.

Is there funding tied to the strategic plan? How can scientists apply to the NIH for funding for obesity-related research?

Though there is no funding directly tied to the plan, NIH funds research to better understand the causes and consequences of obesity and to develop and test new prevention and treatment strategies, an investment of $824 million in fiscal year 2010, plus awards totaling $147 million made in the same year through the Recovery Act. Information on funding opportunities, including lists of NIH obesity-related research solicitations, is available at http://obesityresearch.nih.gov/funding/funding.htm.

The strategic plan identifies and encourages a broad range of research opportunities and priorities to accelerate obesity research.

Researchers can obtain information about applying for NIH funding, and about the peer review system through which applications are evaluated, on the NIH website: http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/oer.htm. NIH publishes Funding Opportunity Announcements to solicit research on topics specific to many diseases and conditions, including obesity. Additionally, researchers are invited to submit applications independent of these topic-specific solicitations. Complete listings of all NIH research solicitations are at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/index.html.

Grant applications that fall within the areas covered in the strategic plan are considered under the same review processes as other NIH research applications.

What have we learned from research since the first Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research was released in 2004?

Just a few examples of research advances and current directions include:

  • Effective lifestyle interventions for weight loss reduce risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Now, NIH-funded studies are testing ways to bring these proven strategies to more people and in real-world settings.
  • When a woman with obesity becomes pregnant, her child’s risk of developing obesity may increase, suggesting a critical period to intervene. Now, researchers can study approaches to help women achieve a healthy weight before and during pregnancy.
  • Many genes and other aspects of our biology – from body fat to the gastrointestinal system and brain – influence whether we’re likely to become obese. Now, researchers are delving deeper into these pathways and how they’re affected by our environment.

Who can be involved in implementing the strategic plan?

Advancing the progress of obesity research requires a strong pool of researchers with diverse areas of expertise who are dedicated to understanding and ameliorating obesity and its many adverse outcomes.

But researchers alone can't solve the obesity problem. We need the commitment of policymakers, healthcare practitioners, businesses, communities, families, and individuals to partner in research and implement what we learn. The NIH works with groups across the country and around the world – including universities, medical centers, businesses, schools, and communities – to study obesity, develop and evaluate strategies for prevention and treatment, train researchers, and teach people about science-based interventions to improve their health.

How can people act on the plan?

Everyone can play a role in enhancing obesity research and moving research results to longer and healthier lives. For example:

  • Researchers can submit obesity-related grant applications that align with the areas of opportunity highlighted in the plan.
  • When taking actions to reduce obesity – such as adding sidewalks or playgrounds to increase opportunities for physical activity or improving access to fresh, healthy foods -- policymakers, community organizations, and others can participate in research to evaluate these efforts, to determine what is working, and how successful approaches could be expanded.
  • The public can participate in clinical research studies to help inform the science of obesity – helping scientists to identify contributing factors and evaluate new prevention and treatment strategies.

What else does the NIH do to address obesity?

To maximize the impact of research, the NIH engages in efforts to apply research findings in practice to improve public health. As research opportunities lead to effective interventions for prevention and treatment, the NIH can serve a critical role in helping ensure that these advances reach the appropriate audiences to promote their rapid implementation. Such efforts often depend on the involvement and dedication of community leaders, healthcare professionals, policymakers, and the general public. For example:

  • Population-based strategies that include national education programs have been an important approach to engage numerous partners and organizations around a common message and evidence-based strategies. The NIH education program to reduce childhood obesity called We Can!® (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) provides flexible resources and strategies that can be implemented in diverse settings to help families, schools, communities, organizations, and national partners and corporations in their efforts to help children maintain a healthy weight. We Can!® has an extensive website at http://wecan.nhlbi.nih.gov.
  • The NIH develops evidence-based clinical guidelines for overweight and obesity as a way to translate the science into practical recommendations for clinical care. Currently, the NIH Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults are being updated using a rigorous evidence-based approach that involves a systematic review of the literature. Upon the release of the guidelines, the NIH will share tools and resources with key national and international audiences through Web-based communities of practice, in which clinicians in primary care or patients themselves can also share ideas and strategies. (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/ob_home.htm)
  • The uptake and dissemination of research advances have been accelerated by collaboration among research funders and national organizations. One example of such collaboration is the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR, http://www.nccor.org   Exit Disclaimer Icon ). The NIH has joined with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish NCCOR in an effort to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and application of childhood obesity research and to halt—and reverse—the increase in childhood obesity.

Where can I find out more?

To learn more about obesity research at the NIH and to download, read, or request a copy of the Strategic Plan for NIH Obesity Research or a summary of the plan, visit http://www.obesityresearch.nih.gov.

Other resources to help people achieve or maintain a healthy weight are available at:

  • Weight-control Information Network (WIN): provides science-based materials about healthy eating & physical activity (http://www.win.niddk.nih.gov)
  • Aim for A Healthy Weight website: provides science-based information on how to reach and stay at a healthy weight (http://healthyweight.nhlbi.nih.gov)
  • We Can! or Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition: is an NIH program developed to help children maintain a healthy weight through food choices and physical activity (http://wecan.nhlbi.nih.gov)
  • National Diabetes Education Program: NIH and CDC work with 200+ partners to reduce illness and death associated with diabetes (http://www.YourDiabetesinfo.org   Exit Disclaimer Icon ).

Last Modified: 3/30/2011

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