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May 2018
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National Institutes of Health
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Panel calls for improvements in research on natural experiments to combat obesity epidemic

An independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health outlined several recommendations to improve research to end the obesity epidemic, emphasizing the need for an expanded approach to obesity research. They note that additional methods are needed to assess obesity prevention interventions occurring at the community level.

Obesity is a major contributor to serious health conditions in children and adults. The prevalence of obesity has grown rapidly in the last three decades. In 2014, more than one third (39.8 percent) of U.S. adults and 18.5 percent of U.S. children and young adults met the definition of obesity.

There is an urgent need for evidence-based approaches to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Yet, because multiple factors such as lifestyle, socioeconomics, and the environment contribute to obesity, maintaining a healthy weight remains a difficult condition to study.

Actions such as financial incentives for healthier foods, community-based physical activity programs, or construction of separated bike lanes that are designed to change real world environments present an exciting opportunity to evaluate “natural experiments” in obesity. However, incomplete development and lack of standardization in study designs, data collection methods, and statistical approaches present significant challenges.

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“The obesity epidemic in the United States has not been reversed. It is essential that researchers examine the status of the methods used to assess natural experiments to reduce obesity and focus on areas in which these methods could be improved to advance the field,” said Dr. Karen Emmons, professor of social and behavioral science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston.

To help strengthen evidence from studies of natural experiments to reduce obesity, NIH convened the Pathways to Prevention Workshop: Methods for Evaluating Natural Experiments in Obesity on December 5–6, 2017. A panel of independent experts moderated the workshop and developed a report. The report includes recommendations to enhance data systems and integration, standardize measurement of obesity related outcomes, and improve methods for study design and analysis. The panel also recommends increased training and community engagement in obesity research, as well as funding for long-term follow-up on promising natural experiments.

“Increased communication between researchers and policy makers involved with obesity research and collaborative partnerships for data sharing purposes is necessary to assist in both prioritizing obesity research and driving change,” said Dr. Emmons, workshop and panel chair.