Dr. T featured in a NBC article about work stress and health!

Ample research has shown that stress is bad for our health. In a new NBC article, Dr. T discusses the evolutionary benefit of stress and its relation to modern-day work stressors. In regards to our health, she notes: “Research shows your brain lights up more in response to [high-fat and high-sugar] foods when you’re stressed. It prompts you to eat more and makes these foods taste even more delicious than usual.” Check out the full article here.

Does dieting work better in pairs? Angela’s novel study discussed in SHAPE magazine!

Angela Incollingo Rodriguez, one of our grad students, recently published a study that was featured in SHAPE magazine. Her team examined whether dieting might be easier and less stressful when using the diet “buddy system.” Interestingly, she found that it may be most helpful if one person is dieting and the other isn’t. Click here to read the full article.

What you didn’t know you learned in college -The order effect of marriage and education

Ample research has indicated a positive relationship between weight gain and marriage, as well as a negative relationship between obesity and the earning of a college degree. However, findings from a recent study add a puzzling contribution to the proposed effect of these factors; it indicates that the order in which people go about college and marriage matters.

The researchers investigated data from 1400 participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that collected data between 1995 and 2008. Participant’s BMI, marriage records, and education level were examined at various time points. The findings suggest that getting married before earning a college degree may increase the risk of obesity by 50%, compared to those who completed a degree and later got married.

In order to be able to argue that the marriage timing had an effect on weight gain, the participants’ parents’ socioeconomic status was controlled for, as well as their BMI before reaching college age. Thus, the observed differences between the groups cannot be attributed to these pre existing factors.

How can the order a person go about marriage and college have an effect on the risk of obesity, you might wonder? The researchers hypothesize that it may be the critical thinking skills that people usually acquire when attending college that may make it easier for them to manage weight under changing circumstances, as well as the probable differences in salaries between the groups that make those with college degrees more likely to be able to afford buying healthy food.

“People who earn a college degree before getting married are more likely to have developed problem-solving skills that allow them to overcome obstacles that may prevent them from exercising and eating healthy as they adjust to married life,” said Richard Allen Miech, one of the main researchers of the study. “On the other hand, our research suggests that people who earn a college degree after marrying may have established exercise and diet habits that are more difficult to change later.”

As stated in the article, these findings emphasize the difficulty of staying healthy in today’s society, as the findings suggest that you may even need to use critical thinking skills in order to avoid the various food temptations and other external cues that may probe you into the direction of eating unhealthy.

Read more about this interesting relationship here!

External cues and food choice -Three winning strategies that improve healthy eating

Findings from a study conducted by the Cornell Food and Brand lab emphasize the importance of external cues in eating behavior, and propose three secrets to healthier eating: make the healthiest choice more convenient, more attractive, and more normal!

The researchers analyzed 112 studies that had looked at healthy eating behaviors, and found that some important factors that distinguished healthy and unhealthy eaters were whether they were exposed to restaurants, school cafeterias, or grocery stores that made fruits and vegetables visible and easy to reach (convenient), appealingly displayed (attractive), and appear like an obvious choice (normal).

“A healthy diet can be as easy as making the healthiest choice the most convenient, attractive, and normal,” said Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of the book Slim by Design, and the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab where this study was conducted.

An earlier study conducted by Dr. Wansink, which aimed at increasing white milk consumption and decreasing chocolate milk consumption in schools, also found similar results. In this study, the researchers tried to change the children’s choices by putting the white milk at the front of the cooler (making it more convenient), selling it in a shapely bottle (making it more attractive), and giving it a greater proportion of the cooler space (increasing the normalcy). After these interventions, the white milk consumption increased by 30-60% in schools!

“With these three principles, there are endless changes that can be made to lead people — including ourselves — to eat healthier,” Dr. Wansink said. Read more about the study here!





Sugar high or sugar low? How sugar influences the stress response

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California, Davis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service brings up an interesting finding that might help explain why it is so hard to break the soda habit; drinking sugar sweetened beverages can suppress cortisol and the stress response in the brain.

The effects of soda on stress was found only in sugary drinks, and not in diet beverages sweetened with aspartame, adding to previous evidence that indicates that sugar may help relieve stress in humans.

On every given day, about half of the U.S. population will consume one or more sugary drinks, the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention says. Since we know sugar overconsumption can have a detrimental effect on health it is important to understand more about people’s soda habits, and why they seem to be so hard to break. “The concern is that psychological or emotional stress could trigger the habitual overconsumption of sugar,” said Kevin D. Laugero, one of the study’s authors.

In the study, 19 women were randomly assigned to drink either regular soda or aspartame-sweetened soda three times a day for twelve days. Prior to and after the 12-day intervention period, the participants performed a math test that was supposed to trigger their stress response. The women’s cortisol responses were measured and their brains were scanned using fMRI.

After the intervention, the women who had been drinking regular soda showed diminished cortisol response compared to the women who had been drinking aspartame-sweetened soda. There were also differences in brain activity between the two groups, with the women in the experimental condition showing more activity in the hippocampus than the women in the control condition. The hippocampus is an area of the brain involved in memory, and is typically known to be less active when the body is under stress.

These findings offer new clues that help explain how sugar positively reinforces comfort eating when a person is stressed, Laugero said. “The results suggest differences in dietary habits may explain why some people underreact to stressful situations and others overreact”.

A lower stress response probably sounds like a good thing to many, but it is important not to go too far in either direction. A normal reaction to stress is vital for good health, and both over- and under-reactivity in neural and endocrine stress systems have been linked to poor mental and physical health.

If you want to know more about how sugar influences the stress response, check out the full article here!

Social While Alone -How comfort food can make you feel like you belong

As you may know comfort food is a hot topic here in the DiSH lab. Not just because it tastes really good and we all enjoy indulging in it from time to time, but also because much of our current research involves investigating the effect of comfort food on stress and health.

Researchers from the State University of New York-Buffalo and Sewanee: The University of the South recently conducted a study on comfort food where they looked at the intersection of taste, nostalgia, and loneliness. In order to do this, the researchers first asked each participant about their personality in order to identify the person’s attachment style. Then participants were randomly assigned to either think about a fight they’d had with someone close to them or to think about neutral occurrences. Everyone was given potato chips they could snack on while doing this.

Afterwards participants were asked to rate how tasty they thought the potato chips had been, and the results showed that those who had been asked to think about a fight with someone close found the chips significantly tastier than those who had been thinking about neutral things. Interestingly enough however, this relationship was only evident among the participants with a secure attachment style. In fact, no differences were found between the groups when looking at those with an insecure or avoidant attachment style.

Shira Gabriel, one of the leading researchers of the study, states that the best way to understand where the comfort of comfort food comes from is to shift focus away from the food itself. “When we think about something like comfort food, we tend to think about it as providing calories or warmth or a sense of well-being,” she says. “But what we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides something social to us.”

This idea was further explored in a second study. Again, participants were identified in terms of attachment style, and were then asked to keep a daily “food-and-feelings” diary for two weeks where they wrote down things like how much they ate, whether they had consumed what they considered to be comfort food, and whether or not they were feeling lonely. They found that on the days where the participant had reported feeling lonely, those with a secure attachment style were significantly more likely than others to consume comfort food.

From this the researchers argue that part of the power of comfort food may lie in the associations it calls to mind, especially those related to social bonds. “I tend to think of it in terms of classical conditioning,” Gabriel explains. “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging.” It makes sense then that on the days we feel lonely we are likely to do things that make us feel like we belong – one of them perhaps being comfort food!

Read the rest of the interesting article here!

Traci Mann featured in StarTribune!

Traci Mann’s intriguing work was recently covered in StarTribune! As you may know, Traci Mann was Dr. T’s graduate advisor and her research focuses on many of the same topics as we study here in the DiSH lab.

By revealing the powerful effects of our eating habits on wellness, Traci Mann is known to bust many of the common myths about our eating behaviors, and her research suggests that, due to the limits of our willpower,  dieting is not the way to go if you’re trying to lose weight.

“People yell at me about this, but the data are so strongly on my side it’s crazy,” she said. “When I say diets don’t work, I say they don’t do what people want them to do.” That is, lose weight and keep it off.

“She speaks the truth and she finds the truth,” said Dr.T  “When you can approach science nondefensively and with curiosity, you can reach some interesting findings.”

Her book “Secrets From The Eating Lab” is just around the corner, in the meantime check out what she has to say in the StarTribune article here!

Stop worrying about what to eat, knowing why might be enough!

In light of the current obesity epidemic, ample effort has been put into trying to help consumers make healthier eating choices. Commonly proposed strategies have been better food labeling and improved nutritional knowledge. However, according to a new study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, enhancing people’s ability to recognize their true emotions may be a far more powerful tool.

“We not only demonstrate that emotional ability is trainable and that food choices can be enhanced, but also that emotional ability training improves food choices beyond a nutrition knowledge training program, “ states one of the researchers, Blair Kidwell from Ohio State University.

The study consisted of a training period where the participants were taught to recognize basic emotions in themselves and others, followed by being exposed to different types of food and packaging where they were asked to pay attention to what they, and the other subjects were experiencing.

When later given the opportunity to choose a snack of either a healthy item or a chocolate bar, the subjects in the training condition were far more likely to choose the healthy snack, than those in the control condition. Furthermore, the participants who received the emotional training had on average lost weight when weighed three months later, whereas the control subjects actually seemed to have gained weight.

The researchers state how consumers are often mindless, and further encourage consumer educational programs to put more weight on emotional awareness, instead of the usual focus of improving nutritional labels.

“With a better understanding of how they feel and how to use emotions to make better decisions, people will not only eat better, they will also likely be happier and healthier because they relate better to others and are more concerned with their overall well-being.”

Read more about the study here!

Laugh it off -The movies that make you eat less

Research from the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University indicates that watching sad movies can fuel emotional eating, leading you to eat significantly more than what you would have eaten watching a comedy.

In the study, participants were assigned to either watch Love Story, a melancholic tragedy, or Sweet Home Alabama, a romantic comedy. The researchers found that participants who watched Love Story ate 28% more popcorn than those who watched Sweet Home Alabama.

These results have also been replicated in real movie theaters, by comparing dumpster diving analyses of discarded movie popcorn. After weighing and counting popcorn boxes left behind, the researchers found that those who had watched the sad movie, Solaris, on average had eaten 55% more popcorn than those who had watched the comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

An earlier study from the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell also showed similar results when comparing action movies and comedies. They analyzed the participants’ eating patterns when either watching the action movie, The Island, or when watching the comedy Charlie Rose Show, and found that the subjects ate almost twice as much while watching the action movie compared to the comedy.

“With action movies, people seem to eat to the pace of the movie,” Dr. Aner Tal, Cornell researcher and co-author, said. “But movies can also generate emotional eating, and people may eat to compensate for sadness.”

However, if you’re a big fan of sad movies, no need to fret; this effect was only apparent when the food was within arm’s reach! “Keep snacks out of arm’s reach, ideally leave them in the kitchen, and only bring to the couch what you intend to eat, like vegetables”, Wansink suggests. “It’s easier to become slim by design than slim by willpower.”

Read more about the study here!

The new crack: Why certain food cravings are hard to combat

Researchers at the University of Michigan have confirmed what has long been suspected: highly processed food like pizza and chocolate can have the same addictive effect on the brain as alcohol and drugs.

The link between food and substance dependent effects in the brain has been indicated by many previous studies, but these researchers were however the first to look specifically at which types of foods that may be involved in food addiction.

A strong association was found between the symptoms of food addiction and highly processed foods, such as pizza and chocolate, while no relationship was found between symptoms of food addiction and unprocessed foods, such as fish or wheat.

Furthermore, individuals with more symptoms of food addiction or with a higher body mass index reported more addictive-like eating behavior, suggesting that some people might be particularly sensitive to the possible “rewarding” properties of these foods. This behavior arises from neurochemical reward centers in the brain, and override normal willpower and hunger control.

The “just say no” approach to drug addiction has not been particularly successful, and this study explains why this strategy is probably not effective for obesity treatment either. The drivers behind obesity may be more psychological than physical, and knowing this may help change public policy and nutritional guidelines in the future.

Read more about the addictive eating study here!