Misperceptions about children’s weight (and what to do about it!)

As you may know, Dr. T was featured in Larry Mantle’s KPCC Air Talk last week where she discussed the issue of parent’s misperceptions of their children’s weight and what parents can do in order to improve their children’s health habits. If the thought-provoking interview intrigued you, here is some more information about the NYU study that served as the background for the interesting talk:

Researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center found in their recent study published in the journal Childhood Obesity that along with the great increase in childhood obesity over the last decades, there also seems to be an increase in the discrepancy between children’s weight and their parent’s perception of their weight.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), and studied two groups of children ages 2-5, the first group from 1988-1994, and the second group was studied between 2007-2012. The data was collected through surveys that asked parents whether they considered their children to be overweight, underweight, or just about the right weight. Most parents reported that they though their child’s weight was “just about right”.

What is so interesting about this data is that even though the rate of childhood obesity has increased dramatically over this period, the rate of parents who think their child is obese has remained constant. That is; at both points in time most parents described their child’s weight is “just about right”, yet the actual weight of the children is drastically different.

Jian Zhang, senior author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University, emphasizes that parental recognition of their child’s overweight status is paramount to obesity prevention efforts.

However, as Dr.T stated in the interview, this issue is fairly complicated and there are many important considerations to take when deciding how to deal with childhood obesity. A longitudinal study conducted by Jeff Hunger and Dr. T has indicated that calling girls “fat” when they’re age 9 increases the risk of obesity 9 years later in life, which emphasizes the importance of understanding implications of a negative body image. “Childhood and adolescence is a time when risk for eating disorders and negative self image starts up, so it is important to be super careful about what you say to your child”, Dr. T explains in her interview with Mantle. You can read more about Dr. T and Jeff Hunger’s longitudinal study here.

So how do we deal with childhood obesity then, one might ask. “Take the focus off weight and re-shift to what the child is doing (health behaviors)”, Dr. T says. These are things that your child can change and something you can talk to your child about – don’t focus on the number on the scale. As Dr. T stated in the interview “there is a way to instill healthy habits in your children without mentioning the number on the scale”.

Read more about the NYU study here, and if you missed Dr. T’s radio talk and want to get more insights into how to tackle this complicated issue, here is the link. http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2015/05/13/42832/how-to-talk-to-children-about-weight/

DiSH lab presenting at PURC!

So proud of our two research assistants, Bernice and Diana, who did such an awesome job presenting their posters at the Psychology Undergraduate Research Conference (PURC) last Friday! Laura Finch, one of the graduate students in the DiSH lab, also did a fabulous job mentoring them both.



 Diana in front of her poster


Bernice in front of her poster


Diana, Laura, and Bernice at the conference

Here is what Diana had to say about the experience:

“As a Psychology Research Opportunities Programs (PROPS) Scholar, I had the opportunity to receive guidance from wonderful graduate mentors who have guided me through the entire process of creating a research question to creating a poster for my very first conference. It has been very stressful, yet a very fun learning experience. The poster I presented at the Psychology Undergraduate Research Conference (PURC) examined the association between stress-related eating and drinking, specifically alcohol consumption, with obesity. Using the Belief in Comfort Eating Scale and Alcohol Expectancies Questionnaire from the Comfort Study, I was able to measure beliefs in eating and alcohol consumption. Although our findings were not significant, it is particularly interesting because it is possible that interventions to eradicate stress-related eating and alcohol consumption may have little impact on weight change and obesity.”

And here is what Bernice had to say:

“The study I presented at PURC focused on comfort eating, which is commonly defined as increased consumption of high-sugar high-fat or high-calorie food in response to negative emotions. Comfort eating is one of the contributing factors to obesity, so we wanted to know whether the benefit of it outweighed its risk. Therefore, we were one of the first to test if consuming people’s choice of comfort food dampened the negative emotions induced by a stressor or altered the stress appraisal.We induced the psychological responses by using the Trier social stress test, where we asked the participant to perform a speech task and a mental math task in front of two evaluators who kept neutral and nonresponsive manners. These tasks were difficult! The result showed that there was no significant difference between people in the control group who sit and rest for five minutes prior to the stressor and people in the comfort eating group who consumed their choice of healthy or unhealthy comfort food following random assignment. Therefore, our conclusion is comfort eating is not an effective coping method for stress.”

Both of their posters looked awesome! Good job girls!

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!





One Size Does Not Fit All -The need for tailoring in obesity treatment

Researchers from the University of Sheffield once again showed that the too commonly proposed “one-size fits all” paradigm for weight-loss falls short when it comes to providing successful treatment for obesity. The authors of the study observed that obese individuals are currently all treated the same, regardless of how healthy they are, where they live, their behavioral characteristics, and so on. This led them to propose a new approach: dividing the participants into subgroups that would receive tailored treatment according to the group’s characteristics.

The study divided participants who had a BMI of 30 or over into six subgroups: young males who were heavy drinkers, middle aged individuals who were unhappy and anxious, older people who despite living with physical health conditions were happy, younger healthy females, older affluent healthy adults, and individuals with very poor health.

The researchers found that tailored treatment was far more successful in tackling weight loss than the “one-size-fits-all” approach, which again highlights the importance of recognizing individual differences in obesity.

Dr. Green, one of the lead researchers in the study, said: “Policies designed to tackle obesity and encourage healthier lifestyles often target individuals just because they are obese. But a focus on just the group as a whole is not very efficient. We are all different and different health promotion approaches work for different people”.

For those with the poorest health, advise surrounding exercise might not be reasonable, and more modest goals may be needed than in the group of affluent healthy adults. Middle aged adults who were anxious and unhappy benefitted from psychosocial counseling, which would not have made sense to provide to the happy older adults. “Our research showed that those in the groups that we identified are likely to need very different services, and will respond very differently to different health promotion policies,” Dr. Green states.

Read more about how this study suggests tackling obesity 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!

Boxing up on obesity -Too much too cheap?

Recent research from the National Bureau of Economic Research investigating external forces influencing obesity has found that two particular factors that may be highly influential: Big-box stores and the proliferation of restaurants.

In light of the skyrocketing obesity epidemic, much effort has been made in order to reveal some of the external and internal causes of obesity. Plenty of environmental factors have been highlighted, including food deserts and desk jobs. The aim of these four researchers was to analyze as many as possible of these notions in order to identify the sources that seem to have the greatest effect on the rise of obesity.

The researchers examined 27 factors associated with obesity and analyzed them in what they called a “statistical horserace”, meaning that they inspected each element and held everything else constant, such as demographic or economic changes.

Two factors stood out as significant drivers of the obesity epidemic: the rise of big-box stores, like Costco, and the proliferation of restaurants. Interestingly, regular supermarkets actually had a negative effect on the obesity rate, suggesting that the underlying reason is not that food has become more accessible, but that the extremely low prices and large quantities at big-box stores seem to be the underlying factor.

Moreover, the time-efficiency of just stopping by a restaurant in an environment where restaurants are everywhere seems to be highly influential as well.

Courtemanche, one of the researchers, explains that this does not imply food should be more expensive, but rather that this knowledge should be taken into account by governmental policy and nutritional guidelines supporting subsidization of healthy food and taxation of junk food.

The researchers point out that it may be a depressing reality that one of our nation’s most costly problems may actually be partly due to food being too cheap. “We’d all like something to be all good or all bad,” Courtemanche said, “and the reality is that often there are things that are mostly good but have some adverse consequences.”

Read the full article here!