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Prof launches study to combat obesity

A Duke professor is looking for a way to protect at-risk populations from one of the world’s newest and most under-examined pandemics—obesity.

Gary Bennett, professor of psychology and neuroscience, has partnered with Piedmont Health Services to conduct the Shape study, an 18-month investigation of a new sustainable, scalable intervention strategy focusing on overweight black women who are at risk for becoming obese.

Shape was prompted by recently published figures in the Journal of the American Medical Society, which revealed that more than half of the adult black female population in the country is obese. Black women are of particular interest in this study because they tend to gain more weight between the ages of 25 and 45, when they are going through life transitions and their childbearing years.

Bennett attributes this trend to a variety of factors, including sociocultural norms like acceptance of a heavier body and fewer social pressures to be thin. New research also suggests that being overweight may not carry as many of the health risks for black women as it does for other groups.

Currently, the options for the most susceptible populations are sparse.

“Nationally, obesity counseling by public providers is very infrequently delivered,” Bennett said. “It is saved for those who are already obese, or those with a high comorbidity with other health risks.”

Coverage is least likely to be provided for ethnic minorities, those of low socioeconomic status and those who are merely overweight as opposed to being obese, he said.

At Piedmont Health Services, with its diverse population, “many barriers for our patients” exist, said Heather Miranda, director of Nutrition Services and a coordinator of the study.

Each of the 240 or so Shape subjects will be given three fitness goals based on a survey evaluating their behaviors and their perceived ability to change those behaviors, said Erica Levine, Shape’s project coordinator.

The unique factor about Shape is that it integrates a variety of affordable technological measures into monitoring progress on these goals. Subjects monitor the frequency and modification of their behaviors by reporting to an automated voice response call every week, and they make a call once a month to a registered dietician to discuss their progress. This plays into Bennett’s long-term goal of creating a model that is scalable and sustainable in the primary care system.

“I try to design all of my studies around a sustainability framework, so that the systems can easily be transferred and maintained,” he said.

Eventually, Bennett said he wants to expand the Shape study to a more general, global population.

“We hope that the Shape model will be nimble enough to be leveraged in the developing world as well,” he said.

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