Over the years, NHLBI-supported research on overweight and obesity has led to the development of evidence-based prevention and treatment guidelines for healthcare providers. NHLBI research has also led to guidance on how to choose a behavioral weight loss program.
Studies show that the skills learned and support offered by these programs can help most people make the necessary lifestyle changes for weight loss and reduce their risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Our research has also evaluated new community-based programs for various demographics, addressing the health disparities in overweight and obesity.
NHLBI research that really made a difference
- In 1991, the NHLBI developed an Obesity Education Initiative to educate the public and health professionals about obesity as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and its relationship to other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. The initiative led to the development of clinical guidelines for treating overweight and obesity.
- The NHLBI and other NIH Institutes funded the Obesity-Related Behavioral Intervention Trials (ORBIT) projects, which led to the ORBIT model for developing behavioral treatments to prevent or manage chronic diseases. These studies included families and a variety of demographic groups. A key finding from one study focuses on the importance of targeting psychological factors in obesity treatment.
Current research funded by the NHLBI
The Division of Cardiovascular Sciences, which includes the Clinical Applications and Prevention Branch, funds research to understand how obesity relates to heart disease. The Center for Translation Research and Implementation Science supports the translation and implementation of research, including obesity research, into clinical practice. The Division of Lung Diseases and its National Center on Sleep Disorders Research fund research on the impact of obesity on sleep-disordered breathing.
Current research on obesity and health disparities
Health disparities happen when members of a group experience negative impacts on their health because of where they live, their racial or ethnic background, how much money they make, or how much education they received. NHLBI-supported research aims to discover the factors that contribute to health disparities and test ways to eliminate them.
- NHLBI-funded researchers behind the RURAL: Risk Underlying Rural Areas Longitudinal Cohort Study want to discover why people in poor rural communities in the South have shorter, unhealthier lives on average. The study includes 4,000 diverse participants (ages 35–64 years, 50% women, 44% whites, 45% Blacks, 10% Hispanic) from 10 of the poorest rural counties in Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Their results will support future interventions and disease prevention efforts.
- The Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL) is looking at what factors contribute to the higher-than-expected numbers of Hispanics/Latinos who suffer from metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. The study includes more than 16,000 Hispanic/Latino adults across the nation.
Find more NHLBI-funded studies on obesity and health disparities at NIH RePORTER.
Current research on obesity in pregnancy and childhood
- The NHLBI-supported Fragile Families Cardiovascular Health Follow-Up Study continues a study that began in 2000 with 5,000 American children born in large cities. The cohort was racially and ethnically diverse, with approximately 40% of the children living in poverty. Researchers collected socioeconomic, demographic, neighborhood, genetic, and developmental data from the participants. In this next phase, researchers will continue to collect similar data from the participants, who are now young adults.
- The NHLBI is supporting national adoption of the Bright Bodies program through Dissemination and Implementation of the Bright Bodies Intervention for Childhood Obesity. Bright Bodies is a high-intensity, family-based intervention for childhood obesity. In 2017, a U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found that Bright Bodies lowered children’s body mass index (BMI) more than other interventions did.
- The NHLBI supports the continuation of the nuMoM2b Heart Health Study, which has followed a diverse cohort of 4,475 women during their first pregnancy. The women provided data and specimens for up to 7 years after the birth of their children. Researchers are now conducting a follow-up study on the relationship between problems during pregnancy and future cardiovascular disease. Women who are pregnant and have obesity are at greater risk than other pregnant women for health problems that can affect mother and baby during pregnancy, at birth, and later in life.
Find more NHLBI-funded studies on obesity in pregnancy and childhood at NIH RePORTER.
Current research on obesity and sleep
- An NHLBI-funded study is looking at whether energy balance and obesity affect sleep in the same way that a lack of good-quality sleep affects obesity. The researchers are recruiting equal numbers of men and women to include sex differences in their study of how obesity affects sleep quality and circadian rhythms.
- NHLBI-funded researchers are studying metabolism and obstructive sleep apnea. Many people with obesity have sleep apnea. The researchers will look at the measurable metabolic changes in participants from a previous study. These participants were randomized to one of three treatments for sleep apnea: weight loss alone, positive airway pressure (PAP) alone, or combined weight loss and PAP. Researchers hope that the results of the study will allow a more personalized approach to diagnosing and treating sleep apnea.
- The NHLBI-funded Lipidomics Biomarkers Link Sleep Restriction to Adiposity Phenotype, Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Risk study explores the relationship between disrupted sleep patterns and diabetes. It uses data from the long-running Multiethnic Cohort Study, which has recruited more than 210,000 participants from five ethnic groups. Researchers are searching for a cellular-level change that can be measured and can predict the onset of diabetes in people who are chronically sleep deprived. Obesity is a common symptom that people with sleep issues have during the onset of diabetes.
Find more NHLBI-funded studies on obesity and sleep at NIH RePORTER.
Obesity research labs at the NHLBI
The Cardiovascular Branch and its Laboratory of Inflammation and Cardiometabolic Diseases conducts studies to understand the links between inflammation, atherosclerosis, and metabolic diseases.
NHLBI’s Division of Intramural Research, including its Laboratory of Obesity and Aging Research, seeks to understand how obesity induces metabolic disorders. The lab studies the “obesity-aging” paradox: how the average American gains more weight as they get older, even when food intake decreases.
Related obesity programs and guidelines
- Aim for a Healthy Weight is a self-guided weight-loss program led by the NHLBI that is based on the psychology of change. It includes tested strategies for eating right and moving more.
- The NHLBI developed the We Can!® (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) program to help support parents in developing healthy habits for their children.
- The Accumulating Data to Optimally Predict obesity Treatment (ADOPT) Core Measures Project standardizes data collected from the various studies of obesity treatments so the data can be analyzed together. The bigger the dataset, the more confidence can be placed in the conclusions. The main goal of this project is to understand the individual differences between people who experience the same treatment.
- The NHLBI Director co-chairs the NIH Nutrition Research Task Force, which guided the development of the first NIH-wide strategic plan for nutrition research being conducted over the next 10 years. See the 2020–2030 Strategic Plan for NIH Nutrition Research.
- The NHLBI is an active member of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity (NCCOR), which is a public–private partnership to accelerate progress in reducing childhood obesity.
- The NHLBI has been providing guidance to physicians on the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of obesity since 1977. In 2017, the NHLBI convened a panel of experts to take on some of the pressing questions facing the obesity research community. See their responses: Expert Panel on Integrated Guidelines for Cardiovascular Health and Risk Reduction in Children and Adolescents (PDF, 3.69 MB).
- In 2021, the NHLBI held a Long Non-coding (lnc) RNAs Symposium to discuss research opportunities on lnc RNAs, which appear to play a role in the development of metabolic diseases such as obesity.
- The Muscatine Heart Study began enrolling children in 1970. By 1981, more than 11,000 students from Muscatine, Iowa, had taken surveys twice a year. The study is the longest-running study of cardiovascular risk factors in children in the United States. Today, many of the earliest participants and their children are still involved in the study, which has already shown that early habits affect cardiovascular health later in life.
- The Jackson Heart Study is a unique partnership of the NHLBI, three colleges and universities, and the Jackson, Miss., community. Its mission is to discover what factors contribute to the high prevalence of cardiovascular disease among African Americans. Researchers aim to test new approaches for reducing this health disparity. The study incudes more than 5,000 individuals. Among the study’s findings to date is a gene variant in African Americans that doubles the risk of heart disease.
Explore more NHLBI research on overweight and obesity
The sections above provide you with the highlights of NHLBI-supported research on overweight and obesity. You can explore the full list of NHLBI-funded studies on the NIH RePORTER.