The recently opened MU Nutritional Center for Health (MUNCH) is a facility where researchers will examine the nutritional, societal, behavioral, financial and physical causes of obesity.

The obesity epidemic in children has defied a single solution for more than 30 years. A new collaboration of teaching, research and outreach from multiple University of Missouri disciplines is a new attack on the problem.

Mizzou’s MUNCH (MU Nutritional Center for Health), and the complementary MU Physical Activity and Wellness (MU PAW), is a joint effort by Mizzou’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR); College of Human Environmental Science (HES); School of Medicine (SOM) and others. The plan is to merge research expertise in agriculture, medicine, food science, journalism, exercise, dietetics and other disciplines into a holistic approach to control obesity.

MUNCH is a just-opened state-of-the-art facility where researchers can collaboratively look at the nutritional, societal, behavioral, financial and physical causes of obesity. With that knowledge, researchers will partner with MU Extension to develop teaching programming to help people make informed and healthy choices regarding food and physical activity.

“We’ve talked for years about the advantages of having agriculture, medicine and veterinary medicine on the same campus, yet we haven’t done as much as we could to realize those advantages,” says Chris Hardin, MUNCH director. “Combating childhood obesity will take a coordinated effort among many agents.”

Previous attempts to study and prevent obesity haven’t had big success because they only looked at one or two causes, Hardin said. These efforts may have had a positive impact in some ways, but did not address the multiple factors that cause kids and adults to become overweight and stay there. Teaming physicians, food scientists, nutritionists, behaviorists, exercise specialists and communicators will more fully identify all of the factors that combine to create obesity, and develop programs that more effectively improve public health.

Bringing it all together

Investigators looking at nutrition, exercise and obesity existed on the MU campus for years, but were scattered among dozens of buildings and administrative lines. MUNCH provides them with a single multifunctional and flexible facility for collaboration in a renovated Gwynn Hall in the heart of the MU campus. The university used approximately $11 million in funds to gut the 1920 building and create a facility like few others in the world specifically designed to study obesity, exercise and nutrition. Donors from multiple colleges contributed almost $1 million to make MUNCH and MU PAW possible.

The center houses a teaching kitchen for interactive onsite and online teaching presentations, a lab for observational research that will analyze subjects’ nutritional intake and behavior toward food, and an advanced metabolic kitchen, which has the technology to create meals with specific amounts of nutrients while controlling all other aspects of subjects’ diets. And there is no shortage of volunteers, courtesy of the Child-Development Laboratory located just a short distance away.

In the MU PAW facility, adjacent to MUNCH, are capabilities to evaluate the health status of research volunteers. The clinic-like setting, staffed by SOM and HES faculty and staff, is capable of measuring blood markers of health and physiologically relevant compounds, cognitive function, and real-time body glucose over several days. It can also evaluate body composition using a dual X-ray absorption device and a bod pod. The bod pod, which looks like a miniature space capsule, can detect even small changes in body fat and lean body mass. Body composition is one of the best indicators of overall health.

Hardin said MUNCH can not only conduct traditional human trials for diets and food products, but will be able to go to the next step such as observing how obese and nonobese parents interact with their children during physical activities and developmental tasks. Multiple cameras in a dining area will observe how kids react to healthy and non-healthy food – determining if things like color, texture, presentation or other factors sway the children to readily eat certain foods to the exclusion of others.

The data will be evaluated across disciplines. Collaborations between food scientists, human development scientists, plant scientists, psychologists, physiologists, physicians, exercise physiologists and dietitians are baked in.

Project MUNCH has already made a significant discovery in the relationship between breakfast and satiety – what makes people feel full and stop eating. Researcher Heather Leidy found that eating a protein-rich breakfast led to increased fullness along with reductions in brain activity responsible for food cravings. The high-protein breakfast also reduced evening snacking on high-fat and high-sugar foods compared to when breakfast was skipped or when a normal protein, ready-to-eat cereal breakfast was consumed.

“The relationship between food, nutrition, culture, exercise and other influences is an emerging science,” Hardin said. “We need to be able to translate food science into nutrition and to see its effect on people. The university has all the pieces to make that work.”

A growing problem with kids and obesity

Solving childhood obesity is a big deal. The incidence of obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to 18 percent over the same period.

Childhood obesity has immediate and long-term effects on health and well-being.

Obese youth are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Obese adolescents are more likely to have pre-diabetes. Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as poor self-esteem.

Long term, children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults, and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis. Overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for many types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix and prostate, as well as multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The CDC states that the dietary and physical activity behaviors of children and adolescents are influenced by many sectors of society, including families, communities, schools, child care settings, medical care providers, faith-based institutions, government agencies, media and the food, beverage and entertainment industries.

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