NICHD Obesity and Overweight Research Information

NICHD is one of many federal agencies and NIH institutes working to understand overweight and obesity. NICHD supports and conducts research on the causes of excess weight, how to prevent and treat obesity, and related topics, including conditions related to obesity.

NICHD goals related to overweight and obesity cover a broad range of areas, including:

  • Preventing obesity through a better understanding of the genetic, molecular, and organ-system factors related to adiposity
  • Exploring social and psychological antecedents of behaviors related to nutrition and physical activity
  • Understanding the role of obesity in pregnancy and perinatal health
  • Promoting the health of particular populations that are at increased risk for obesity
  • Creating and testing interventions for various settings, such as in homes, schools, community centers, and camps

Institute Activities and Advances

Obesity is a chronic disease. Prevention efforts are often unsuccessful because changing the way people eat, move, and live is very challenging. Obesity is both a biological and a social problem and must be considered as a function of these larger contexts for prevention and treatment efforts to work.

Several NICHD organizational units conduct and support research on a broad range of topics related to excess weight gain, including the causes, effects, prevention, and treatment of obesity and related conditions.

Because environment and genetics play important roles in childhood obesity, the NICHD’s Section on Growth and Obesity works to increase understanding of the metabolic and behavioral factors involved in determining body weight regulation and body composition during childhood. The section also studies prevention and treatment, and places a special emphasis on populations that are at an increased risk for obesity. For example, in one study of African American and Caucasian children and adolescents, section researchers found that the gastrointestinal lipase inhibitor orlistat improved weight loss. Another study found that the medication metformin added to a behavioral program significantly improved weight loss and lowered insulin resistance in severely obese, insulin-resistant children.

The Pediatric Growth and Nutrition Branch (PGNB) also supports a wide range of childhood obesity research, including studies on psychosocial risks of obesity, the natural history and clinical pathophysiology of body composition, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, environmental and policy research in relation to obesity, and preventive and therapeutic interventions for childhood obesity. Funding from the PGNB has led to several noteworthy advances, including one of the first large genome-wide association studies (GWAS) on weight among U.S. children.

Obesity affects pregnancy in several significant ways. The Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch (PPB) supports obesity-related research in many areas, including the short- and long-term effects of maternal obesity and weight gain during pregnancy on women’s and children’s health. In addition, the branch supports studies of lifestyle interventions before and during pregnancy that aim to improve maternal and child health through healthy changes in diet and physical activity levels. The PPB also has explored the possible connection between obesity and postpartum depression.

Obesity also can affect fertility. NICHD’s Fertility and Infertility Branch (FIB) explores ways to prevent and treat infertility related to obesity. One scientific advance provided insights into the relationship between obesity, androgen excess, and polycystic ovary syndrome in adolescents.

Other NICHD units, such as the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch (IDDB), explore issues related to obesity in specific populations, such as people with Down syndrome. The Child Development and Behavior Branch (CDBB) supports research on the behavioral factors that can lead to obesity and behavior-based prevention and treatment strategies for obesity.

In addition, the Division of Intramural Population Health (DIPHR) studies critical data gaps to advance understanding of obesity and how it affects health. For example, DIPHR led a 7-year assessment of U.S. adolescents and young adults to identify health-related influences, including genetic, personal, family, school, and social factors that promote or sustain positive health behaviors.

To ensure that NICHD organizational units advance the most effective obesity-related science, the institute’s research portfolio includes research and translational activities across the Institute. Some focus areas include:

  • Interventions, such as pediatric obesity prevention or treatment studies in the primary care setting, at home, in schools, and in camps
  • Behavioral and psychosocial observational research, including observational studies that examine social and psychological antecedents, consequences, or correlates of diet, physical activity, sedentary behavior, and/or obesity in children and adolescents
  • Basic sciences research, including human in vitro or animal studies that focus primarily on the genetic, molecular, cellular, or organ-system factors related to diet, physical activity, development of adiposity, or other aspects of energy metabolism
  • Clinical physiology, such as human studies that focus on clinical cohorts of children and adolescents with normal weight, overweight, and obesity

The institute also promotes a systems-oriented approach to childhood obesity that includes the following key features:

  • Framing obesity as a complex systems problem
  • Emphasizing cross-level and cross-disciplinary hypotheses at the outset of research
  • Increasing efforts in structural or upstream interventions
  • Building capacity for multilevel research, in terms of training and collaborating with partner organizations
  • Investing in complex systems research methodologies
  • Maintaining a global perspective

Other Activities and Advances

NICHD works to promote collaborative efforts to understand overweight and obesity and to promote healthy weight. For example:

  • NICHD is a member of the Obesity Research Task Force, which  promotes obesity research efforts across the NIH.
  • NICHD is a member of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) external link, which brings together leading research funders (including the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) in a public-private collaboration to accelerate progress on reversing the epidemic of overweight and obesity among U.S. youth. The mission of NCCOR is to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and application of childhood obesity research, and to halt—and reverse—childhood obesity through enhanced coordination and collaboration.
  • NICHD’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine Units Network addresses clinical questions in maternal-fetal medicine and obstetrics, including weight gain and nutrition.
  • The institute’s Healthy Pregnancy for Every Body initiative encourages plus-size pregnant women and their healthcare providers to work together to promote healthy pregnancies and births. The effort explains that BMI is just one aspect of a healthy pregnancy plan, and should not be the sole focus of a plus-size pregnant woman’s care.  
  • Research supported by NICHD and other NIH Institutes was featured in the HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation external link, which explored many topics related to the obesity epidemic in the United States, from causes to treatments. Leaders of the NIH Obesity Research Task Force provided guidance and materials to the filmmakers throughout the creation of the piece.

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