Debra Haire-Joshu’s internationally renowned research and its resulting policies are powerful tools against daunting statistics: More than one-third of U.S. adults and about 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These numbers point to a generation at significantly increased risk of more than 20 chronic diseases and health conditions that cause devastating consequences and increased mortality.
“We need to ensure the public has access to an environment that makes it easy for them to eat healthy and be active, critical lifestyle elements to maintaining and managing weight,” says Haire-Joshu, who is The Joyce Wood Professor and professor of public health with joint appointments in the Brown School and the School of Medicine. “Behaviors of this generation are transferred to the next. These are all fixable health challenges.”
Early intervention is key. Haire-Joshu dives deeply into early intervention research, especially with underserved young mothers and their children.
“My endowed professorship has enabled me to make connections and pursue my work addressing intergenerational obesity across multiple levels, from biology to policy,” says Haire-Joshu, who is also director of the Center for Diabetes Translation Research and director of the Center for Obesity Prevention and Policy Research, both at Washington University. “This allows me to do early life research which, in terms of the prevention of obesity, is the next big frontier. We are examining what we need to do during or even before pregnancy to try to understand the impact of—and stave off—excessive gestational weight gain. That has been a direct result of the endowment.”
Haire-Joshu already has made her mark on U.S. policy. Her research helped establish policies to improve school lunch programs, and her background work helped inform Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which encourages children to exercise. These early interventions in schools are designed to help children establish healthy habits.
Progress has been made in the obesity fight, she says, but more must be done.
“We have done a lot of good things, but now we have to make sure they are implemented effectively,” she says. “Obesity has developed over generations, the result of numerous complex influences. It’s not going to be one fix—it’s going to be changes across multiple environments together that will support behaviors that will reverse this epidemic.”