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Rutgers to study obesity sources

Why are many young children now developing health problems usually associated with overweight adults? How can they learn portion control? What are the best low-calorie diets?

Why are many young children now developing health problems usually associated with overweight adults? How can they learn portion control? What are the best low-calorie diets?

Those questions and more will drive research at Rutgers University's new Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at the Cook Campus in New Brunswick, N.J. - an addition made possible in part by a recent $10 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Scientists will focus on shrinking bulging waistlines in and around Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York.

Robert M. Goodman, executive dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers, said that although Tufts and Cornell Universities had similar research organizations, an interdisciplinary academic approach would set Rutgers' institute apart. "This is the only place in the country that is doing it in this integrated, comprehensive and deliberately approached way," Goodman said. "The scope and the comprehensiveness of what we're trying to do is unusual, if not unique."

New Jersey's relatively small size, large population, ethnic diversity, and well-documented obesity problem make it a prime place to base such study, Goodman said. Its many hospitals and large medical education centers, such as the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, ensure that the institute will have resources to draw from.

"We expect to attract a global scientific community to this institute," he said.

Also, the Garden State has a distinct link to the food supply, Goodman said. One out of every seven jobs in the state is in the food system, and New Jersey is one of only two states in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture manages school lunch programs. Those facts position the institute to have a powerful influence on nutritional health, Goodman said.

Rutgers will supplement the Johnson grant with $55 million, according to a statement. Goodman estimated the cost of creating the institute at $100 million.

"This is a major commitment by Rutgers to a transformative program," he said.

Goodman said the institute would engage the corporate sector, other foundations and philanthropic donors for additional resources. The faculty will likely seek grants for its work, he said.

The Johnson foundation chose Rutgers because the institute's mission aligns with one of its own national initiatives, said David Navarro, the senior program officer responsible for the project.

"The goal is to reverse the trend of childhood obesity by 2015," Navarro said. He did add that initially, the Rutgers institute would not be directly linked to that initiative, although "the findings could be helpful."

Obesity increased from 6.5 percent of the population in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006 for children between ages 6 and 11, according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For adolescents 12 to 19, the rate has more than tripled in the last 20 years.

CDC experts have linked childhood obesity to risk factors for heart disease and adult obesity.

Goodman said the institute would bring together researchers from backgrounds such as nutritional and food science, cell biology, and neuroscience to address the many facets of childhood, adult and geriatric obesity.

"I like to describe what we do broadly as a life-cycle approach," he said.