University of Georgia

Curbing the obesity epidemic

Photography By Rebecca Ayer
kids eating lunch in cafeteria
Although the 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act increased the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunchrooms, what was available was not always eaten, according to Janani Thapa, UGA assistant professor of health policy and management. Part of her research identifies easy, low-cost methods to change the presentation of food in lunchrooms. (Photo by iStock)

There have been numerous efforts by U.S. lawmakers and public health officials to curb the obesity epidemic in recent decades. Even so, the number of individuals who are overweight or obese has continued to increase. From 1999 to 2018, the prevalence of obesity increased nearly 12%, with severe obesity increasing more than 4%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Janani Thapa, an assistant professor of health policy and management at UGA’s College of Public Health, believes that lowering these numbers is within reach. With a background in applied economics, Thapa takes her knowledge of individual decision-making and researches potential programs and policies that could prevent obesity and address health disparities in affected communities.

Thapa, who serves as director for UGA’s Economic Evaluation Research Group, has studied school lunchroom environments, access to insurance plans by obese adults, and how income and school locations affect initiatives designed to curb childhood obesity. She and a multi-interdisciplinary team received funding from UGA’s Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant to study the relationship between schools’ built environments and implementation of a statewide childhood obesity policy.

What are some of the health risks associated with obesity?

There are many health risks associated with obesity: cancer, diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, hypertension, sleep apnea and stroke. It’s a critical issue because many chronic diseases associated with obesity are preventable, which is why I feel strongly about this research area. We’re losing lives from preventable chronic disease deaths. There is also an abundance of potential mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and stigma surrounding obesity. These mental health issues are especially prevalent in children.

Why is it important for children to develop a healthy relationship with food early in their lives?

If someone is overweight or obese as a child, they’re more likely to be obese as an adult. The food we grow up with is so close to us in our adulthood. For example, my husband and I grew up around the same part of the country, but his family was more urban and relied on foods purchased from stores. My family was more rural. We have very different food choices that never came together, even though we’ve been together for almost 20 years now. Our tastes are so different. That is why it’s essential to establish healthy food habits early, because food habits are formed early and stay with you for life. Of course, new habits can be formed, but I think the relationship we have with food is more than just a habit, like trying to wake up early. Food is much more ingrained. There are so many environmental issues and problems with lack of access to healthy food that dictate food habits for some families. That’s where school lunches are even more critical, because they provide healthy fare that includes fruits and vegetables.