The University of Minnesota has received a $7 million federal grant to create a childhood obesity center with the goal of transforming the exercise and eating habits of as many as 530 Minnesota families.

Researchers will use the grant, announced Thursday, to connect families with health advocates in medical clinics, enroll them in classes about healthy foods and active lifestyles, and improve their access to healthful foods and recreation opportunities.

While U researchers have tried these approaches individually, they've never wrapped them all around families at once. The goal is to address the multiple social factors that can lead to obesity: lack of access to parks and walking trails, poor food options in low-income neighborhoods and excessive amounts of television and screen time.

These and other influences have fueled a startling increase in American obesity in the past three decades, as well as related health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and even preterm births. The share of children ages 12 to 19 who are overweight has tripled in the United States since 1980. The last survey of Minnesota high school seniors in 2007 found 13 percent of males and 5 percent of females were overweight. Two out of every three Minnesotans are now overweight or obese.

"No successful long-term weight loss interventions for adults have been identified, so preventing obesity among children in the first place is critical,'' said Simone French, a childhood nutrition expert at the U who will direct the center.

A key to the research program will be the advocates, who will work individually with families to keep them on track with weight and exercise goals and to connect them with clinics and educational resources, French said.

Critics often believe obese people simply lack willpower, but French said the root causes of the national obesity epidemic are far more complicated.

"Character flaws and willpower haven't changed in the population over the last 25 years, but yet the obesity prevalence is skyrocketing," she said. "So that right there tells you it's not just someone's lack of willpower or bad character. There's a whole fabric of societal influences on us that are [responsible]."

The researchers will mostly select low-income or ethnically diverse families, which have higher rates of obesity and related diseases such as diabetes. They will also focus on families with preschool children, whose dietary and exercise habits haven't been formed.

Because the project involves prevention, the researchers will not necessarily be selecting families or children who are already obese. Children enrolled in the study will have to at least be in the 50th percentile for weight in their age group, though.

The National Institutes of Health awarded the grant to the U and the HealthPartners Research Foundation, which will collaborate in the research project. The first phase will take place over two years and involve 30 families. The second phase will take place over three years and involve 500 families.

The NIH also awarded childhood obesity grants to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Improving access to healthy foods and information is a major goal. The researchers among other things will work with local stores to ensure they stock fresh produce and other healthful foods. They will also use schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul for the family education classes.

HealthPartners' Nancy Sherwood said it is important to provide opportunities "where families spend much of their time" in order to encourage lasting changes in the health routines of children and parents.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744