People who regain the weight they’ve lost after dieting may be reducing their physical fitness more than they think.

That’s because when dieters lose weight, they lose both muscle and fat. But when they put pounds back on, they generally regain — mostly fat.

“If people who weigh 200 pounds lose 5 percent of their body weight  — 10 pounds — with a very low-calorie diet, when they regain the weight, they have less muscle than when they started,” said Paul Estabrooks, a professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center.

Estabrooks was updating the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors on Sunday about efforts to reduce the nation’s swelling obesity problems.

More than one-third of adults in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and obesity is often related to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer.

The muscle-loss phenomenon was part of a rationale to study the effectiveness of resistance training to prevent diabetes, work led Brenda Davy, an associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Richard Winett, the Heilig Meyers professor of psychology in the College of Science.

“Two out of three adults have weight issues that can affect their health,” Estabrooks said. “We have research-based treatments that are proven to be effective, but the problem is translation of research into practice is slow, and even then only about 14 percent of research findings make their way into practice.”

The goal of the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center, which is co-directed by Kevin Davy, a professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, is to engage a group of faculty to span the translational research spectrum, to train new scientists in translational obesity research, and to support clinical and community organizations to bring evidence-based solutions to the public.

Estabrooks presented a wide range of examples of research underway stretching from basic to behavioral science.

Investigators led by George Davis, a professor and graduate program director with the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, and Debby Good, an associate professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, have discovered that even in mice, the “cost” of food seems to affect dietary choices.

Testing garden-variety mice alongside a strain of genetically heavier mice, the researchers studied how much effort the animals were willing to expend to hit levers that would release either low- or high-fat foods.

The animals, no matter their genetic makeup or the types of food they received, economized their effort, choosing the “cheapest” food in terms of energy expenditures.

The discovery adds credence to the idea that the obesity epidemic in people is fueled by low-cost junk food over more expensive, healthier food choices.

Meanwhile, a research team led by Wen You, an associate professor of agriculture and applied economics, are discovering people are more willing to participate in an obesity reduction program for a comparatively small amount of money — $31 for men, $11 for women — than they were to accept a gym membership worth hundreds of dollars more.

The discovery suggests that across a demographic spectrum, a low-cost monetary incentive may be just as effective as a $250 health club membership to promote wellness.

In regard to community interaction, researchers, led by Fabio Almeida, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are gearing up their diabetes prevention efforts with a program called diaBEAT IT, an automated telephone counseling effort to help people at risk for diabetes to lose 5 percent of their body weight.

In addition, researchers are helping area residents through organizations such as the Dan River Partnership for a Healthy Community and through clinical partners at the Carilion Clinic.

Overall, Estabrooks said Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center scientists have earned 22 extramurally funded grants with total costs of nearly $19 million from local foundations, industry sponsors, state government, and the National Institutes of Health.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.


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