Renowned researcher has high hopes for obesity research at ASU

January 28, 2013

James Levine, a world-renowned obesity researcher at the Mayo Clinic who recently joined ASU as co-director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative, has worked for 25 years with patients who are struggling to lose weight, and has published his research widely.

He also has participated in the development of devices such as the desk treadmill, the Gruve and other activity monitors.  Download Full Image

Out of all the health problems in the United States, why is ASU tackling obesity?

I would challenge you to find anyone who disagrees that obesity is – if not the primary health challenge to ill health in America – at least one of the top challenges. It’s estimated it accounts for more than half of U.S. dollars spent on health care, for lost work days, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, malaise or depression, early cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritic pain, obstructive sleep apnea, and the list goes on. What is endured by people with obesity is extraordinary, and many of us health workers blessed with good health don’t realize what our patients are up against.

Do you see people in your practice who have tried many times to lose weight?

Patients in my clinic have made on average 17 attempts to lose weight. To me, that’s heroic. I can’t think of anything in my life I’ve tried 17 times and yet come back for more. My patients are up against such enormous challenges that even trying 17 times doesn’t solve it. That tells you a lot, about the battles people really endure and also the magnitude of the challenges. That’s why we‘ve formed the initiative.

Why is obesity such a complex problem?

It’s not as simple as advising people to diet and exercise more, because we’ve been doing that for decades, and that’s obviously not the answer. There are multiple factors involved. Poverty is a major driver of obesity in America. People living in poor zip codes have low access to healthy food. Also, we’re all under tremendous stress, and many of us respond to stress by eating. Many people are lonely, and they often eat more than they need to for sense of comfort. For cultural reasons, some people like to have a bit of extra weight. Lack of sleep is a major driver in obesity, as is prior abuse history. There are a whole catalog of factors that are maybe even more important than diet and exercise.

Finding the right solutions for individuals in their situation at that time that will work for them is what we’re trying to build here. Why, with something as complex as obesity, would we think that one size fits all?

How does poverty play into obesity, other than lack of access to healthy food?

I was just in Cleveland, where I’ve done a lot of inner city projects, and the challenges bring tears to your eyes. There are people who have diabetes but can’t get to a health care center. People who want to be active but are afraid to go out at night and exercise. Kids can’t go to the playground because that’s where the drugs are dealt, and kids can get shot. People want to be healthy, but it’s so difficult to achieve that.

Why is losing weight so difficult for people who have the means to exercise and eat healthy foods?

We’ve lost a sense of balance. Many people are so busy and caught up in the morass that we don’t put health at the top of the priority list. I talk to my patients about having breakfast, sitting down with a significant other, reading the paper, starting the day right. And healthy people do that. It’s an art as much as science. Part of what we’re trying to do is create the sense in individuals that health is available for all of us, but we need to grasp it. It needs to be prioritized. There are tools and techniques to do it.

If obesity is now so widespread globally, is it a problem that can be solved?

I’ve met people who don’t think obesity is solvable. They say it’s too late. They argue that the solution is to give all children a tablet to prevent diabetes and high blood pressure. But obesity has evolved over only one generation, so it’s a relatively new problem. It’s not going to be solved in one year. Who’s going to fight for our children and grandchildren if we don’t? Obesity is solvable, but we’re going to need to do it collectively, and to be sensitive to the fact that different people are going to need different approaches.

Why has Mayo Clinic partnered with ASU in this endeavor?

What we’re trying to do is build this amazing academic enterprise. The world’s finest medical center is the other half of this alliance. By combining Mayo and ASU in this endeavor, it’s like a dream team of how to impact obesity in America. We have a group of physicians and scientists who are expert, skilled in the art of understanding health. Here at ASU, having access to the scientists and mathematicians who work in complex adaptive systems, is obviously a perfect fit. We have a group of dynamic, innovative scientists and shared intellectualism to bring this to fruition. Could you think of a better combination than Mayo and ASU? If we ever had a chance to impact obesity in America, this has to be one of those opportunities.

You have helped develop technology that promotes activity. Will that be part of this initiative?

We have a large interest in using technology to help people be active and eat well. With 100 million Americans who are obese and overweight, we don’t have enough counselors. We have to use technology. We’re building certain technologies here. We’ve already funded an ASU company and multiple other companies are coming to us with their ideas.

Will developing new businesses be part of the initiative?

Overweight patients spend 65 billion dollars on creams, diet drinks and other products, many of them unproven. People with obesity are willing to give of their own personal resources to find a solution. So why hasn’t someone built a series of businesses that actually help people? We want to encourage young entrepreneurs to bring their business acumen to obesity. We want a multitude of businesses to come out of this initiative that bring clever, scalable business solutions that help people effectively and ethically lose weight.

Not only are there great scientific opportunities to do things we’ve never done before, but this is an area that is opportune to help so many people. New businesses will come out of this enterprise, and companies may come to us to test new products. I want lots of corporations to come to us, so we will know how to test and deploy these things as no one has done before. Ethics and business have to go hand in hand.

Why did you decide to affiliate with ASU, in addition to your work at Mayo?

The real answer is that I was entranced by the leadership, which is so dynamic and so committed to building enterprises that address societal issues, in a profound way. For the first time in my professional career, I was at an academic institution that literally wanted to take a societal issue and solve it. That literally blew me away.

It doesn’t take five minutes to look at the breadth of talent here, not just the faculty but the students, and you get a sense of the capacity of ASU. It’s extraordinary. This is a world-changing group of people. The faculty are amazing, but the people who will effect change are the students. Here I’ve met students who want to change the world they live in. What a privilege! What choice did I have?

What has been the response so far?

The response has been overwhelming, from faculty who want to work in obesity, and from students emailing me out of the blue, wanting to get involved. There has been a flood of interest in work we’re doing. Large corporations are coming to us. It’s humbling. Every day is like a magical roller coaster ride.

ASU tackles worldwide challenge of obesity in broad research initiative

January 28, 2013

Obesity is a bigger global health crisis than hunger, according to a new report published in a British medical journal. It is the leading cause of disabilities around the world, with obesity rates climbing 82 percent globally in the past two decades.

Arizona State University is confronting the worldwide health challenge of obesity head-on, gathering some of the world’s foremost experts on its faculty and partnering with Mayo Clinic on an ambitious undertaking, the Obesity Solutions Initiative. Download Full Image

It is a wide-ranging effort that will involve students, faculty, staff and the community, and that is expected to engage thousands of research participants over many years. Funding for the effort comes from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, which established a $10-million strategic investment fund for ASU to improve all aspects of health care delivery.

Already a quarter of the ASU freshman class have been weighed and measured, and faculty researchers are bringing in grants to explore pieces of the solution puzzle. New companies are being formed at SkySong that will offer innovative technologies and products. ASU is exploring a lease at the Downtown Phoenix campus for space for a nutrition kitchen, nursing clinic and a testing center where faculty can do assessments.

ASU is casting a wide net because of the complexity of the problem, according to Elizabeth D. Phillips, ASU executive vice president and provost. She co-directs the initiative with James A. Levine, professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic and a world-renowned leader in obesity research.

“Lots of things affect obesity: genetics, metabolism, social expectations, diet, culture, economics, family rearing, friends,” says Phillips. “There are a million factors to consider. It’s a tremendously complex problem, and a huge project in that sense.

“No one wants to be obese, and we all know we’re supposed to eat less and exercise more. Yet the majority of adults in this country are overweight, struggling to lose weight without success.”

Now that the so-called “Western lifestyle” has been adopted all around the world, every country except those in sub-Saharan Africa faces skyrocketing obesity rates, according to the Global Burden of Disease report published in the British journal. The study involved nearly 500 researchers from 50 countries comparing 20 years of health data.

The health burden is high. For the first time, the report said, noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease top the list of leading causes of years spent sick or injured. All are often related to obesity.

ASU may be the first university in the nation to tackle the global challenge of obesity on such a scale. This stems from the university’s commitment to transform society, recognizing that research universities are the preeminent catalysts for social change. The breadth of expertise at ASU and its entrepreneurial culture make the daunting effort seem tantalizingly possible.

“What makes ASU able to attempt this is the comprehensive nature of our expertise, and the scale and scope of our research,” says Alex Brewis Slade, a world expert on the growing prejudice and stigma surrounding obesity. “A problem as complex as obesity must have people working across multiple fields, in many different domains. ASU’s coverage is unmatched in the number of different ways we can devise to tackle the problem. Partnering with Mayo gives us the full aspect of the medical field.”

Brewis Slade, who was named director of ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change a year ago, is director of operations for Obesity Solutions. She and Deborah Williams, associate director, are working with groups of ASU undergraduates who are conducting needs assessments and focus groups on obesity among other students.

They’ll branch out to conduct a needs assessment of faculty and staff this summer, to gauge the best solutions to be tested and implemented on campus.

The Well Devils Council, a group of ASU students dedicated to helping other students lead healthy lives, is working with Aramark, the Tempe campus food provider, to highlight healthy menu options at the Memorial Union and residence hall restaurants.

One of the key participants in the work of Obesity Solutions is James Levine, Mayo physician and professor who was persuaded to join ASU this year. He has worked with obese patients at Mayo for 25 years, has written widely on the subject of obesity and has participated in the development of devices such as the desk treadmill, the Gruve and other activity monitors. 

“For the first time in my professional career, I found an academic institution that literally wanted to take a societal issue and solve it,” he says. “That literally blew me away. The leadership is so dynamic and so committed to building enterprises that address societal issues in a profound way, I was entranced.

“Here at ASU, having access to the scientists and mathematicians who work in complex adaptive systems, is obviously a perfect fit. It doesn’t take five minutes to look at the breadth of talent here, not just the faculty but the students, and you get a sense of the capacity of ASU. It’s extraordinary.

“It’s easy to become cynical in the modern world. Here I’m meeting students who want to change the world they live in. What a privilege.”

Undergraduates in Deborah Williams’ global health classes have been conducting student surveys for the initiative since last semester, to gauge student attitudes about weight and obesity. They have found that while just over a third of students are concerned about their weight, there is a strong stigma attached to obesity.

“I was shocked that the majority of students would actually give up five years of life in order not to be obese,” says Donny Nelson, a global health major with a minor in sustainability. “The majority seemed to me to be concerned with the social implications of being obese, rather than overall health. 

“I believe we need to take a much deeper look at the behavioral patterns of each individual affected.  I definitely plan to be involved with Obesity Solutions. One of the goals of the study is to try to understand people’s beliefs about obesity and to create programs and solutions that link affected people with others who have similar backgrounds and experiences.”

ASU students, faculty, staff and alumni also are being asked to come up with innovative proposals for solving the challenge of obesity, in an Obesity Solutions Funding Challenge. The competition will accept applications from Feb. 1 through March 3, with $10,000 in seed funding being offered the winners along with a slot in ASU’s Venture Catalyst cohort. A kick-off event takes place 3-5 p.m., Jan. 31, at Changemaker Central.

For more information about Obesity Solutions, go to