A Healthier New Orleans?

November 17, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

It's old news that Americans have a weight problem. Almost two-thirds of us are overweight, with half of those qualifying as obese.

healthier_nolaAnd despite common-sense (and perhaps overly simplistic) ideas about diet and exercise, it's not entirely clear how we got this way and how to fix the problem.

In particular, it's not known why the poor have an even greater rate of obesity than the population at large.

"You have to wonder about the availability of healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. You also have to wonder about the fact that those neighborhoods are less safe and have fewer outdoor facilities," said Thomas Farley.

"But there's complexity to the issue. For example, it's possible that the chronic stress of being on the bottom of the totem pole can affect the endocrine system in a way that encourages weight gain."
Farley, chair of community health sciences, is involved in several efforts to help make New Orleans a healthier city.

He wrote the grant proposal to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that funded Step Together New Orleans, a five-year, citywide initiative to reduce obesity, diabetes and asthma in New Orleans. Now, he's principal investigator on a new grant to establish a prevention research center at Tulane that focuses on the impact of the social and physical environment on obesity, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

The grant includes funding for a core research project in a single, yet-to-be-determined census tract in New Orleans. The neighborhood residents will be involved in identifying the biggest barriers to a healthy lifestyle in their area and in planning what kinds of interventions will be tested there. Adam Becker, assistant professor of community health sciences, will oversee the core project.

The grant funds also serve as seed money to attract other grants and projects. Farley has been the principal investigator in an intervention study in which a playground at one neighborhood elementary school was kept open with adult supervision after school hours. They found that not only are the kids in the area more physically active than those in a control neighborhood, but that there are more kids playing outside in general, even if they're not at the playground. Farley isn't sure if researchers can take credit for the increased activity.

"We think we may have helped make it seem normal for kids to go out and play," Farley said.

Parents in low-income neighborhoods may not let their kids play outside because they fear it's not safe, and while Farley acknowledges that their concerns are legitimate, he says neighborhoods get safer when there are more people spending more time outside. Under the aegis of the prevention center, he would like to expand the study to six more schools to see if they can duplicate the increase in outdoor activity.

Another potential project for the prevention center is a survey of a diverse group of neighborhoods to see if the foods available in neighborhood stores and restaurants are directly reflected in what people actually eat--or if people are willing and able to travel outside the neighborhood to get foods unavailable close to home.

Although Step Together New Orleans and the prevention center are separate entities, Farley expects they will work closely together. Prevention-center interventions that work well might be brought to the whole city by Step Together New Orleans. Together, Farley hopes the two endeavors will have a compounded impact on obesity in New Orleans--a serious problem that increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, impacting the healthcare system and the economy.

Nationwide, it's projected that obesity will soon overtake tobacco as the leading cause of fatal chronic diseases.

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000