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!

The error in the “eat less, move more” paradigm

The alarming rates of obesity have brought huge attention to trying to find effective treatments for this major public health issue. As you may know, much of the current research here in the DiSH lab investigates the implications of weight stigma on health, as there seem to be widespread misconceptions regarding the causes of obesity, as well as how we can go about solving the crisis.

In a commentary published in the journal Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, a group of physicians from the medical faculties of University of Colorado, Northwestern University, and the University of Pennsylvania, challenges the commonly practiced “eat less, move more” treatment for obesity, and states that for people who have stayed obese for more than a few years, this treatment is a prescription for failure.

When thinking about effective treatments for obesity, it is easy to neglect the distinct biological differences in formerly obese people and people who have maintained a normal weight their whole life. The body responds to weight loss with adapted defense mechanisms that are all directed at trying to return to the highest sustained weight. This leads the commonly held “eat less, exercise more” belief to fall short in reality, as previously obese people will constantly be at war with their bodies even long after dieting has stopped.

This disappointing reality is however well known to obesity researchers, and you may wonder why this group of physicians wanted to further bring up the topic?

“It’s not just that most people still stigmatize obesity–as they say, it’s the last acceptable form of stigma,” said Ochner, one of the physicians. “What really bothers me working around and with clinicians, is that some of them–a disturbing percentage–still believe it’s all about personal choice: that if the patient just tries hard enough, and if we can just figure out how to get them a little more motivated, then we’d be successful. And that’s just not right.”

Lifestyle changes are undoubtedly a necessary condition for enduring weight loss, Ochner said. But they’re far from sufficient, and when physicians believe they are–when they say “you already know what to do, I told you what to do,” he said–“that’s certainly cruel, and it’s harmful: It prevents them getting the care they need.”

Physicians should acknowledge the biological challenges of keeping weight off by emphasizing on intervening earlier, and try to prevent overweight people from becoming obese, Orchner states. Additionally, they should recognize FDA approved medications, surgery and device-based treatments as supplemental alternatives. Orchner also emphasizes the need to focus on weight-loss maintenance as a part of obesity treatment, and states that this highly necessary aspect seems to be neglected by most physicians.

In conclusion, the group holds that it is a lack of understanding when it comes to the broader causes and consequences of obesity that prevents many potentially beneficial treatments from being considered and developed, and that this is underlined by a deep-rooted stigma that is even maintained by physicians and other professionals in the field. Read the full article here!

Are you having fun yet? -The role of framing in weight loss

There is nothing more frustrating than feeling like you’re not getting the desired results after making a real effort to keep hitting the gym and cutting back on the junk food. However, if this has ever been you, you are definitely not the only one, and a recent study from Cornell University may have done a key finding in answering this weight loss mystery: you forgot to have fun!

The study points at the importance of “framing” – how do we really feel about exercise? The three Cornell researchers found that people who look at exercise as a chore, and not as something that is fun to do, have the tendency to both eat more and to eat more unhealthy after completing a workout.

This finding was made among the college’s administrative staff members, who were all given a map and asked to complete a specific route with occasional stopping points along the way. The participants were either explicitly told that the purpose of the study was to exercise, or they were given an MP-3 player and told that the purpose was to assess the clarity of the music at the different stops. After completing the route they were offered a variety of different food, both on the unhealthy and healthy end of the food scale. The subjects in the exercise group ate significantly more unhealthy food than the subjects who were listening to music, and they also consumed significantly more food overall.

Why do we tend to make poorer food choices after a workout we didn’t enjoy? The researchers suggest that if people see exercising as an exhausting chore they feel an impulse to reward themselves after a hard workout, but if they had fun while working out on the other hand, this need doesn’t seem to emerge.

In conclusion: whatever you do, have some fun with it! This will help you eat better and in the long run reach your weight goals. Changing how you feel about exercising might seem hard, but try to bring that smile to your face. Listen to music, run in a beautiful place, do the activities you enjoy, or work out with a friend – anything that makes the workout seem less like a chore is likely to help you make those good food choices, and as an added bonus it will probably make your day better as well! Check out the article here.

“How am I doing?” – Why tracking your goals might be harder than you think

Does eating a carrot do more good than eating a doughnut does bad? That is what people tend to think when they’re on a diet, at least according to these researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder. They call their finding the “progress bias”, and what it basically means is that people tend to over-exaggerate the positive and downplay the negative when they’re considering how their doing in terms of goals and progress.

Especially now that the new year is here, a lot of us have made the vow that this will be the year where we finally start losing weight, saving money, or begin exercising. Engaging in behaviors that help us get closer to the goal, so called goal-consistent behaviors, feel like big accomplishments, while behaviors damaging to the goal, might not feel like they are equally negative. One of the many reasons why the process of dieting can seem so maddening could be that we think we have made all the right changes, but still we don’t see the desired results. This study points to one of the reasons why: maybe we aren’t as successful in working towards our goals as we think we are. Statistics suggest that as many as 45% of Americans made New Year’s resolutions this year, and also that the majority of these people will fail. Apparently we find it all too easy to close our eyes to the bad and only focus on the good, leaving us with an unrealistic idea of how we are doing. No wonder dieting is so frustrating!

Are there ways to overcome the progress bias, one might ask? “Monitor, monitor, monitor”, Margaret Campbell, one of the lead researchers, says. “For example, dieters need to pay close attention to calories in and out – both aspects – during this tempting time to keep from falling prey to the bias”.

If that is not really your thing though, it helps to know that the bias might be a motivator to some, as we are bound to have some relapses during times of change, and this helps us from lingering on our failures and look at the bright side. Check out the article here to get the full image of what else this bias might do!

An insider’s peek into the ultra elite IOM meeting on “Solving Obesity”

On January 7th the Institute of Medicine (IOM) held a roundtable discussion workshop with the topic “The current state of obesity solutions in the United States”. Among the high-level speakers was James Hamblin, the senior editor of The Atlantic, who gave a speech about the role of media in obesity. He reports back an intriguing discussion regarding the pressing issue of obesity interventions, and how the general public’s perception of the root causes of obesity makes this particularly hard.

Three years ago the IOM agreed that the obesity crisis has been pushed by complex environmental circumstances, and called on public awareness to catalyze change. There is plenty of coverage about obesity in the media, but is it the right one? Ultimately, it is the general public’s view of what obesity is that will determine how we go about solving the obesity crisis. In sum, the media might be more inclined to depict obesity as a personal affliction, and a moral and biological failing, rather than a social disease. In fact, recent research from Yale University found that more than two thirds of news stories about overweight people portray them in a “negative and stigmatizing manner”.

Although most people agree that obesity is a serious national problem, only 27% of Republicans (and 87% of Democrats) believe the federal government should intervene to address this issue. Why? Because only 18% of Americans identify external factors such as food deserts, lack of opportunity to play outside and so on, as the primary cause of childhood obesity. Most people blame “overeating” and “watching too much television” and thus think that the best and most effective solutions can only be made by the person himself.

But what if these factors are only symptoms – not causes – of what the real problem is, Hamblin asks? Can you really separate personal choices from structural factors such as community planning, food packaging and marketing, and media stigmatization? Hamblin says that his role as opinion former in the news industry is one of public health as well. In sum, messages from the media are critical for the way people see obesity, and ultimately how they feel about government policies. Read the rest of his argument, as well as some of what other IOM speakers said in his article here.

Congratulations Jenna!!

Jenna, one of our amazing grad students, is a winner of the 2014 Student Grant Competition (SGC)! On top of that, the Association for Psychological Science Student Caucus eNews gave her a special shoutout congratulating her! Here’s the post that they wrote:

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Once again, congratulations Jenna! We are so proud of you!!

Bernice RA Blogs: Weight stigma does not reduce obesity

As one of the top public concerns in United States, obesity draws huge attention from social media, and unfortunately, most portraits of obese people are linked with negative characteristics, such as lazy, weak willed and self-indulgent. However, some public health campaigns claim that stigmatizing obesity may encourage people to lose weight and such belief contributes to the prevalence of weight stigma. On the other hand, there are experimental evidence that shows that weight stigma may lead to both psychological and physiological consequences. A recent study by Dr. Major supports the latter proposition.

Major’s study shows that women who perceived themselves as overweight, and were randomly assign to read a news article about the stigma faced by obese people feel less capable of controlling their eating, and consume more calories during a fixed waiting time, compared to women who perceived themselves as normal weight. Moreover, exposing one to weight stigma by reading news causes both women who self-perceived themselves as overweight and those who self-perceived themselves as normal weight to be concerned more about being a target of stigma.

Such result implies that weight stigma is not a possible solution to reduce obesity. Rather, it leads to weight-based identity threat among self-perceived overweight people, and consequently, the threat and concerns cause those folks to become more prone to unhealthy eating or weight control behavior. The only way to break such vicious circle is to reduce public weight stigma and alter the self-perceived body image.

Blog by Bernice Cheung 

Ilana RA Blogs: Freshman 15?

As we are just beginning our third week of the quarter, a relevant topic to address with all the new bruins around is the dreaded “Freshman 15”. Is this weight gain something to be concerned about or is it just a myth?

According to an article by Hovell and colleagues entitled, “Risk of Excess Weight Gain in University Women: A Three-Year Community Controlled Analysis”, researchers compared a group of freshmen women living on campus to a group of freshmen women living in the community. Results of the study found that the freshmen living on campus were almost three times as likely as the women living in the community to gain weight; however, by their junior year, the women who initially lived on campus were almost back to their baseline weight. This return to their original weight was attributed to moving away from the buffet-style food and going back to a more regulated eating pattern.

In another instance, a researcher named Cecelia Brown found through examining peer-reviewed journals, magazines, and newspapers that half of the popular press state that freshmen gain 15 pounds. In actuality, the 14 studies in the peer-reviewed journals revealed that the average weight gain in freshmen was less than 5 pounds. The press seemed to make out that the weight gain was much higher than in reality and constantly reinforced the fear of the “Freshman 15”.

All in all, it is definitely easy to be tempted with all of the dining hall food and the new freedom that comes with living away from home. However, the fear of gaining weight itself and the term “Freshman 15” can cause a lot of harm through the self-fulfilling prophecy. The bottom line is to make smart choices and not get too preoccupied with gaining weight. Get out there…enjoy the sights of Los Angeles and stay active. The “Freshman 15” will soon be a thing of the past!



Blog Post by Ilana Greenberg

Another Day, Another Paper!

Dr. T’s latest paper, Weight Bias in 2001 versus 2013: Contradictory Attitudes Among Obesity Researchers and Health Professionals, just got published in the Obesity Journal! This study indicates that weight stigma is still widespread today. However, there’s hope for the future, as some forms of weight bias have declined since 2001.

Be sure to check it out, along with other recent publications found here!

It’s Weight Stigma Awareness Week!

According to the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA), weight stigma is “what a person experiences when weight bias is internalized as being ‘deserved’.  This occurs frequently today, resulting in larger people feeling shame, anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. These diminish a person’s body esteem and motivation for self-care.” 

That being said, weight stigma is a highly prevalent and serious problem, making it critically important that people learn more about this weight-based discrimination. Luckily, to help spread the word, this week is BEDA National Weight Stigma Awareness Week! Click the link here to see what else BEDA has to say. In addition, if this topic interests you, be sure to also check out the following papers on weight stigma by Dr. T!

-Tomiyama, A. J. (2014). Weight stigma is stressful: A review of evidence for the Cyclic Obesity/Weight-Based Stigma Model. Appetite, 82, 8-14.

In 1 Bite: Weight stigma feels bad, but could it even result in weight gain? Dr. T constructs a model to explain this vicious cycle.

-Tomiyama, A. J., Epel, E. S., McClatchey, T. M., Poelke, G., Kemeny, M. E., McCoy, S., & Daubenmier, J. (2014).Associations of weight stigma with cortisol and oxidative stress independent of adiposity. Health Psychology, 33, 862-867.

In 1 Bite: Can weight stigma get under our skin? This study examines the relationship between weight stigma and biological stress and long-term cellular aging.