Nutrition & Physical Activity

Zambian women cooking for a community school.

Why It Matters  |  What We Are Doing  |  Who Is Involved



Why It Matters

Food and exercise are the building blocks of health across the world. Inadequate food in the first years of life results in permanent stunting of body and brain. The Lancet, a respected international journal, has identified 36 countries as home to 90% of the world’s stunted children. Food insecurity is not limited to developing countries – in North Carolina, one in four children under five are food insecure on a regular basis. On the other extreme, obesity rates are skyrocketing along with globalization of unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles. Regular exercise helps control obesity, and it does much more. Exercise is a “wonder drug” that boosts the immune system, improves mental health, and reduces the risk of many chronic diseases.


What We Are Doing

Our nutrition programs are top ranked in the U.S. Gillings School researchers work from “cell to society” to improve nutrition and promote increased physical activity around the world.   Read More

At policy level, major studies in China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, the UAE, and the U.S. are demonstrating to policymakers how globalization and food industry marketing are changing the food supply and affecting caloric intake and diet quality in these countries. Research studies at the nexus of nutrition and agriculture are shaping our understanding of the role of agriculture and food systems in increasing food access, improving diet quality and intake, and promoting economic development.

At population level, we have learned a multitude of ways that early growth and nutrition impacts on health later in life across diverse communities in the US and abroad.  Studies focus on overall dietary patterns and on specific effects of nutrients and physical activity on weight status, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Exciting new work shows how genes can change the way diet or physical activity affects health outcomes.

At program level, we work directly with non-profits, families, school, workplaces and communities to enhance their access to high-quality, nutritious foods and active lifestyles.  Projects range from redesign of packaged food for an international hunger relief agency to guidance on neighborhood redesign in North Carolina to promote active living.

At cellular level, we have gained new insights into the interaction between nutrition and brain development, and shown how the absence of vital nutrients can have severe impacts on health and growth. We have also demonstrated a dramatic interaction between nutrition and the immune response to infectious diseases, as well as the development of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions. Our research is leading to new strategies for prevention and disease management across all life stages.

We have introduced science-based physical activity initiatives that have proven extremely beneficial to patients with leukemia and other cancers, since they counteract the debilitating fatigue that accompanies chemotherapy.  We have also shown that regular exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer and help people with diabetes to manage their condition more effectively.

We train some of the world’s top students in nutrition through initiatives such as the Sanofi Global Nutrition Scholars program, which supports students to focuses on nutrition and chronic diseases in emerging economies such as China.  Because our nutrition programs are uniquely positioned within both the Gillings School of Global Public Health and the UNC School of Medicine, we provide our students with a broad range of expertise and greater opportunities for critical, ground-breaking and innovative research.

Who Is Involved

Our leaders in nutrition and physical activity come from across the Gilling School, and include our world-class faculty, staff, post-docs and students. This overview only captures a fraction of the important research, teaching, and public service efforts in nutrition and physical activity at the Gillings School. Please explore the individual leader descriptions to learn more about their work.