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Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Obesity through the lens of science

Conference to address obesity from multiple perspectives

Aug. 27, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Researchers from several disciplines will bring an academic focus to the growing problem of childhood and adolescent obesity with a conference Sept. 4-5 at Indiana University Bloomington.

The conference, titled "Cognitive, Behavioral and Economic Approaches to Childhood and Adolescent Obesity," will feature presentations by internationally known experts from the fields of economics, nutrition, marketing, biostatistics and exercise.


Conference organizers are IU faculty members Alyce Fly, associate professor of applied health science; Gerhard Glomm, professor of economics; Rusty Tchernis, assistant professor of economics; and Peter Todd, professor of cognitive science, psychology and informatics.

They point out that obesity, with an estimated cost in the U.S. of approximately $100 billion a year, is one of the "lifestyle-related diseases" targeted for study by Indiana University in its Life Sciences Strategic Plan. A report this month by the Trust for America's Health found 27.5 percent of Indiana adults are obese, up from 26.8 percent in last year's report. Among the states, Indiana ranked 11th worst for its rate of obesity, the report said.

"To understand why Americans in general and Hoosiers in particular are not making better choices that can prevent such costly health outcomes, we need a collaborative effort of cognitive and behavioral scientists regardless of departmental affiliation," said Glomm.

The conference will take place in Wylie Hall 005 on the IU Bloomington campus. The complete schedule may be seen online at The conference is free and open to the public; registration is required by Aug. 29 to Harriet Kenny at

Presenters will include:

  • Bill Harbaugh, associate professor of economics at the University of Oregon, whose research interests include altruism and neuroeconomics and the economic behavior of children.
  • Megan McCrory, assistant professor in the departments of Foods and Nutrition and Psychological Sciences at Purdue University. Her research deals with eating patterns and diet in weight management.
  • Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson professor of marketing at Cornell University, who conducts research on nutritional science, food psychology, consumer behavior, food marketing and grocery shopping behavior.
  • David Allison, professor of biostatistics, head of the Section on Statistical Genetics and director of the Clinical Nutrition Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research interests include obesity, quantitative genetics, clinical trials and statistical methodology.
  • Tom Baranowski, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, whose research is directed toward understanding the eating and physical activity habits of children and designing and evaluating programs to change those behaviors.
  • Mary Burke, an economist in the Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Her research interests include social norms and social interactions, health economics and applied microeconomics.

While many studies have examined the causes of obesity, there has been relatively little research on what keeps children from making better choices about diet and physical activity, the conference organizers say. Yet behaviors that are established early in life often have long-lasting consequences for personal health; therefore, it makes sense to focus research on childhood and adolescent obesity.

The Sept. 4-5 conference sets the stage for a 2008-09 seminar series at IU Bloomington in which organizers plan to have monthly meetings with and presentations by speakers from within and outside of IU. Goals of the conference and the seminar series include extending the research literature on obesity in adults to children and adolescents; investigating social and other barriers to healthy decision-making; and designing effective interventions that lead to more healthful eating.

Funding for the conference and speaker series comes from the Indiana University Institute for Advanced Studies through its New Knowledge Seminar Grants; the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation; the Department of Economics and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

The conference and series build on work done for a November 2007 conference at IU Bloomington titled "Obesity: Causes, Consequences and Policy Challenges." That conference featured obesity researchers from Stanford, Cornell and Clemson universities and led to the establishment of the multidisciplinary obesity study group at Indiana University.