William H. Dietz joined the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1997 because he wanted to influence national policy on obesity. After 15 years of focusing attention on the growing waistlines of many Americans, he is now looking to exert a similar influence through academe.
Dr. Dietz, who is 69, last week became director of George Washington University’s newly created Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness.
While the center’s detailed objectives are still being decided, he says, one goal may be to evaluate scientific approaches to curbing obesity, to see which ones work best. "We know, by and large, what we should do," which is to decrease levels of obesity, Dr. Dietz says. "But how to do it is a major concern."
A few states have reported recent decreases in obesity, and Dr. Dietz would like studies to be done to determine why. He does not know of a center that is working full time to do such evaluations.
Dr. Dietz was a member of a National Institutes of Health panel that issued guidelines in 1998 for defining healthy weight, resulting in the classification of many more Americans as overweight. The change caused a national stir.
In 2012 he left the CDC to become a consultant on obesity and nutrition.
While obesity will continue to be the subject of his research, Dr. Dietz says, the new post comes with a more accommodating budget than the one for the division he directed at the federal agency. The Redstone center, part of George Washington’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, was established through a $30-million gift from the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation. Another $50-million was donated at the same time to the Milken Institute School of Public Health by the Milken Institute and the Milken Family Foundation.
Such a large donation means that the center will have the latitude to tackle large questions—and Dr. Dietz has quite a few. For example, in poorer countries, many children are either drastically overfed or underfed. "You do want to overfeed those kids to reverse their stunting, but that could contribute to increasing their obesity," he says. "So nobody understands very much about that."
Dr. Dietz hopes the center can delve into such gaps in research. In the meantime, he says, he is learning about the university and how certain schools and departments might contribute to the center’s work. He says the number of resources he has found on campus so far is "striking."
Correction (4/7/2014, 2:28 p.m.): The original version of this article incorrectly said that the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, which is part of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, was established through $80-million in donations from the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation, the Milken Institute, and the Milken Family Foundation. The Redstone Center was established through a $30-million gift from the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation. Another $50-million was donated at the same time to the Milken Institute School of Public Health by the Milken Institute and the Milken Family Foundation. The article has been corrected.