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The $150 Billion Problem

By Tim Hyland

Meghan Butryn, PhD

Meghan Butryn, PhD

The obesity crisis in the United States is one of the largest, most complicated and most deeply entrenched public health issues facing the nation today.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 78.6 million Americans — a staggering 34.9 percent of the total population — are obese, and as a result, the rates of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer are all on the rise. It is estimated that this ever-worsening endemic costs the nation nearly $150 billion each year.

It is, in short, a massive health care crisis. But according to Meghan Butryn, PhD, it’s also a relatively new crisis — which means solving it is particularly complicated.

“The problem of weight gain in the United States is a fairly new one, and the research being done to try and understand what causes obesity and how to best address it is all quite new, too,” says Butryn, an associate research professor in Drexel’s Department of Psychology. “Our understanding of obesity really is still in its infancy.”

Butryn, who earned her bachelor’s degree in human development from Cornell, and her master’s and PhD in clinical psychology from Drexel, is developing ways to help people not only lose weight when they first undertake a new diet or health plan, but also to help them keep that weight off in the long run. This focus is key, she says, because it’s that second part of the equation — keeping the weight off — that has most flummoxed the health professionals battling obesity thus far.

“The reality is, there’s almost nothing that works for prevention at this point,” Butryn says. “Our treatments are good in the short term, but they are disappointing in the long term. We know how to help people make some changes in eating habits and exercise over the course of maybe six months or a year, and we can help them attain some weight loss, but weight re-gain seems inevitable for more participants than not.”

With the support of two grants from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Butryn is trying to find a way for patients to overcome this daunting hurdle.

With the first $2.5 million grant, Butryn and Drexel co-researchers Evan Forman, PhD, Stella Volpe, PhD, and Eugene Hong, MD, are working with 150 participants to determine whether a long-term focus on either exercise or diet is more important for keeping weight off after initial weight loss. And with a second grant of $2 million, Butryn, Forman and Michael Lowe, PhD, will use a similar approach to study how the “food environment” influences participants’ ability to keep weight off.

The goal is to find a way to help people develop the kind of lifestyle habits and mental framework that will allow them to live the lives they’ve dreamed of — free of the extra weight, and free, too, of the many health problems that weight can bring.

Butryn knows it’s no small challenge, but she’s committed to putting in the work, alongside her Drexel colleagues, to find an answer.

“Drexel has provided a fantastic environment to do this research,” she says. “In terms of resources, we’ve been well-supported by the University, and I have really terrific colleagues. I couldn’t be doing the work I do without them — and the work we all do is made all the better because we collaborate so well.”

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