The Future of Obesity
Research at Cal State East Bay inspires students toward community, careers
When Moria Wong signed up to crunch numbers and help analyze data for behavioral research studies at Cal State East Bay, she was hopeful of bringing fresh insight to an age-old topic: weight loss.
“I think I bring a unique perspective,” Wong says about one of the studies she helped with. “I pointed out that some people from certain socioeconomic groups might have a harder time getting to weight loss support groups or doctor appointments, so even if they’re motivated, there could be other things happening that’s stopping them from losing the weight.”
The work, done by students in Assistant Professor Michael Stanton’s behavioral health classes, reflects a concerted effort to prepare aspiring health care professionals for dealing with the critical issues they’re likely to face after graduation.
“Obesity is one of the more trending conditions that we’re dealing with right now, especially in urban cities,” Wong says.
While rural areas continue to have a higher rates of obesity overall, a 2016 study from the World Health Organization projects that dramatic increases in city populations will likewise reflect larger numbers in obesity — and be exacerbated in poor communities. The situation is worst, according to WHO, in developing countries, but a 2017 New England Journal of Medicine report positions the U.S. at No. 18 worldwide.
As an East Bay native, Wong is especially interested in how those projections will hit home.
“When we were looking at data from Hayward, we learned that obesity is not just about overeating, it also has to do with food insecurity, access to healthy food and having balanced nutrition,” Wong says. “It’s not just what the scale sees.”
Stanton, a behavioral health scientist who began researching obesity during his postdoc years at Stanford, is now at the helm of a variety of weight studies at Cal State East Bay. One such study centers on mindfulness — a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment. Stanton wanted to find out if a daily mindfulness text message called a “nudge” that required the subject to pause and self-evaluate could help in weight loss. The messages included questions like “What is your behavioral intention today?” and “How do you feel at this moment?”
“We started with the idea that there may be certain behaviors that if you push people [toward] minimally, it can have a huge affect,” Stanton says. “That’s a big part of behavioral medicine, [asking] ‘What kind of minimal intervention can make a dramatic change?’”
And since nearly everyone has a cellphone, the study combined an established technique — daily reminders — with readily accessible technology.
Ultimately, he found that while some text messages were not enough to significantly motivate weight loss, those focused on improving self-efficacy — confidence in one’s ability to engage in a particular health behavior — were promising.
“They’re so excited and passionate about the topic,” he says. “They’re motivated to help, and [obesity] is an ongoing battle — it’s topical research and they appreciate the experience.”
For example, Wong says since doing the research, she’s found herself gravitating toward research insights that could boost solutions for underserved communities.
“I’m really interested in finding ways to improve health disparity and using data and data aggregation to change health policy and health administration,” Wong says. “I want to look at trends and make recommendations on cultural factors that [other] researchers may be overlooking.”
The professor has other studies in the works, too: One that focuses on the effect obesity has on the hippocampus, thought to be the brain’s center of emotion and memory, and one that examines the impact of stigma on obesity.
Beyond the research, Stanton’s work is helping prepare his students for professional work in the vast field of health sciences, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow by 2.3 million jobs by 2024. In terms of caring for obese and overweight Americans, the estimated yearly medical cost of treatment was about $147 billion in 2008 alone, according to the latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control.
“A lot of them are going into public health, so no matter what they do, they’re going to have to work in obesity [treatment and research],” Stanton says. “The studies require complex coding, evaluating things such as ‘How should the responses be weighted?’ (in the text message study) and students have been key to working on those parts of it.”
Wong, who helped with data analysis, presented on the research at the Cal State East Bay Student Research Competition and also helped Stanton prepare for publishing, says the experience is driving her future career plans, including pursuing a Master of Public Health.
It’s also helped her visualize where she can fit in among the wide world of health science careers.
“To me, the research experience was well worth it. I was able to learn about the process of publishing and it made my experience at [Cal State East Bay] more meaningful,” she says. “Because of this, I want to publish in the future, particularly about the health industry and working with vulnerable populations.”