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South Carolina Researchers Receive $2.9 Million for a Study of Overweight, Obese Pregnant Women

University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health researchers Dr. Sara Wilcox and Dr. Jihong Liu were awarded a $2.9 million grant in August for a five-year study on the best methods to help overweight and obese women have a healthy weight during pregnancy and after the birth of their children. The funding is from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

Nearly three-quarters of African-American women and half of non-Hispanic White women of childbearing ages living in the United States are overweight or obese and nearly half (46 percent) of pregnant U.S. women exceed the recommended range of weight gain, designated by the Institute of Medicine, during pregnancy.

“Women who become pregnant when they are overweight or obese have a greater risk for serious health problems,” said Dr. Wilcox, director of the Prevention Research Center at the Arnold School and a researcher in the department of exercise science.

“To date, few studies have been successful at helping obese and overweight women who are pregnant gain a healthy weight during pregnancy,” she said, noting that many of the previous interventions have also had little racial minority representation. “The interventions being tested in the study will include white and African-American women and have a physical activity component, along with helping women develop healthy diet and nutrition choices,” Wilcox said.

“We want to help women have a healthy weight during pregnancy and also lose weight post-partum,” said Dr. Liu of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics. “It is important for their health and the health of their babies. Moms who are overweight or obese are at higher risk of having gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, type 2 diabetes, delivering large babies and giving birth before a baby reaches term.”

Entering pregnancy at a healthy weight may seem to be the ideal. However, pregnancies can be unplanned, and some women cannot afford the time it would take to reach a normal weight before pregnancy because of fertility concerns, the researchers explained. “Pregnancy is a time for women who are overweight to become obese or for those who are obese to become more obese,” said Dr. Wilcox. “And it’s challenging for health care professionals who want their patients and babies to have good health.”

Recruiting for the study will begin in January 2015 from obstetric clinics in Richland and Lexington counties in South Carolina. Half of the participants will receive the intervention component of the study, which will include group sessions, counseling, podcasts and social support via Facebook. The women also will be guided in setting weight, physical activity and nutrition goals for their pregnancy. The other participants will receive mail and podcasts providing information for promoting general health during their pregnancies.

Co-investigators for the study are Drs. Cheryl Addy and Brie Turner-McGrievy, both from the Arnold School, and Dr. Judith Burgis of the USC School of Medicine.