Addicted to “Food Addiction”

I recently wrote a short article on “food addiction” for the Risk Innovation Lab’s CrisBits blog (collaboratively published by Arizona State and Michigan University!). This piece mainly focuses on the scientific side of the issue- I really wanted to broadly cover research on the topic, since so many popular articles on food addiction focus on singular studies (and end up being extremely misleading). Yet I also really wanted to address the topic from an anthropological perspective.

… the notion of addictive foods attracts us on a much deeper level as well

So why are we.. almost addicted to the belief that “food addiction” is a thing? If you read my CrisBits article, you’ll see that there is (as of now) no actual evidence for any food ingredients causing addictive-like responses in humans. The field is highly debated, though: there’s plenty of scholars arguing pro and against. On top of that, the media often does a horrible job sensationalizing food addiction research (well, I suppose it does a great job sensationalizing, but a horrible job communicating the results correctly). All of that can surely create the illusion that science actually supports the food addiction theory. However, the notion of addictive foods attracts us on a much deeper level as well…

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The allure of addictive foods

There is a strong cultural appeal in the idea that certain “bad” foods or their components can cause dependence and are thus dangerous (e.g. MSG, casein, gluten). This view of overeating as addiction includes the need to “detox” and instead eat a “clean” diet (e.g. this: The Diary of a Sugar Addict in Detox).

These are not just modern health trends, but a manifestation of a need to understand our world by imposing structure and thus meaning on the untidy experience that is reality. Structure is created by categorizing things into clean/unclean, healthy/unhealthy, pure/dirty- and things that don’t clearly fit into such categories are considered unclean and dangerous. Anthropologist Mary Douglas makes this point in her seminal book, Purity and Danger, as she examines food taboos (cultural rules about what not to eat). Douglas points that prohibited foods are considered “polluting” because they defy easy classification into culturally important categories. The current unease with genetically engineered foods is a fantastic modern example: as a technology that blurs the lines between natural and unnatural domains, it is indeed often termed by opponents as “genetic pollution” or “contamination”.

…prohibited foods are considered “polluting” because they defy easy classification into culturally important categories.

The categories we create to make sense of the world have strong moral overtones, as they allow us to essentially define right and wrong. Indeed, the word “addiction” itself is connected to the moral disapproval of socially undesirable behaviors (e.g. drug abuse). Psychologist Paul Rozin points out how the fear of sugars in American diets, for example, reflects the Puritan belief that things that are very pleasurable must also be bad.

Religious Scholar Alan Levinovitz also emphasizes that people frame eating in terms of morality and religion. He discusses how concepts of healthiness reflect the “myth of paradise past”- the idealistic belief that things were better, healthier, and even morally superior before. From such perspective, novel changes to foods represent our fall from grace- whether via agriculture (e.g. as in paleo diet ideology) or industrialization and technology (as with processed and genetically modified foods).

So, that’s my little anthropological view of food addiction beliefs as a cultural phenomenon. Hope you enjoyed it!


P.S. You might see news reports on studies about food addiction.. but keep in mind that no clinical diagnosis for “food addiction” exists, and most such research uses a self-report questionnaire: the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS). This tool uses DSM-IV’s generic criteria for substance abuse to measure addictive-like eating.

Most importantly, it does not validate the existence of “food addiction” as a true disorder (DSM diagnostic criteria is intended for trained clinicians, not a checklist for self-diagnosis via a simple questionnaire). This is a critical issue to consider, as most food addiction research with humans is based on diagnosing food addiction this way.

Time of Eating & Health: Video

I made my first science communication video! It took me only ~ 15 hours, no big deal 🙂

It won’t be as time consuming from now on..but there is a lot of work involved nevertheless: writing a good concise script, sketching all the images that could go along with it, setting up the recording (can be so tricky!), recording yourself draw (and redraw.. and redraw) every frame.. Then editing all those videos, recording the audio (and re-recording..and re-recording again), and finally matching video to audio (as well as finding some free background tunes to go along!). Check it out: 

 

I chose this topic because i’ve been craving to cover it for some time now. Since my dissertation work focused on lay models of healthy eating across cultures (so: people’s beliefs about what it means to eat well), I did not address the scientific accuracy of any perceptions. But oh I wanted to! And that is because one of the most fascinating findings from my interviews was that eastern European (EE) participants considered “how you eat” (i call these “eating styles”) to be more important for health than American respondents.

Eastern Europeans (EE) judged statements about EATING STYLES (such as time of eating) as more important for health…

Specifically, EE participants rated the statement “it is important to avoid eating late in the day” significantly higher than Americans (and this was true from my past survey-based studies!).

This is what the image below shows, but let me explain the method behind it: I conducted >70 interviews in the U.S., Romania, and Ukraine where I asked people to look at 42 different statements about “healthy eating”. Among other activities, they had to indicate how much they personally agreed with each statement (from “4” agree completely to “-4” disagree completely; I used Q Methodology for this, by the way ).

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So, between Americans and eastern Europeans, 1 statement about eating styles (or “context” as I referred to it in this chart) that was more important for the latter: not eating late.

So, out of ALL 42 cards, only “avoid eating late in the day” got a statistically significantly higher agreement score from eastern Europeans. AND when prompted to explain their views, my respondents gave an explanation that was amazingly close to the actual science of circadian rhythms!!

Why did EE folks seem to know about circadian rhythms way more than Americans?

I didn’t analyze why EE folks seem to know about circadian rhythms way more than Americans, but this knowledge is something they knew from childhood.. It was part of general recommendations and “common sense” while growing up in the USSR. It fact, importance of eating styles is prominent in traditional beliefs about health (like in Japan and China).. perhaps all the focus on nutrients that’s possible with modern science is taking our attention away from this old wisdom?

perhaps all the focus on nutrients that’s possible with modern science is taking our attention away from this old wisdom

Now that nutrition science is paying increasingly more attention to eating styles as well (CHRONO-NUTRITION!), I assume American folks will begin incorporating beliefs about importance of food timing also!

PHD!

Sooo it has been accomplished! I have been awarded my PhD in Global Health from Arizona State University.. It’s been a long journey from post-USSR Ukraine to receiving one of the highest honors worldwide- a Doctor of Philosophy degree from a such a fantastic and innovative American institution as ASU!!

This summer I will be working with the Risk Innovation Lab at ASU on publishing a couple of perspectives on science and health. I’m extremely excited about this opportunity to get into science communication and hope to post more about that soon! In the meantime, some of my other publications:

 

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Cognitive Differences in Healthy Eating Perceptions

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Human Food Preferences

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Evolution & Cooking

 

 

Last week at the Culture Change & Behavior lab

Last week our lab held the last meeting for the semester. And to celebrate a great productive year we had… chocolate-covered insects. It’s a bizarre tradition carried over from ~1 ago when the lab studied disgust towards eating different animals 🙂

I will miss working with our fantastic undergraduate apprentices! This semester we focused on 2 projects: 1)using process tracing software to examine how much different types of information matter for making food healthiness judgments, and 2) measuring household wealth (& how it affects health) across the world.

The first project was my “baby”: after mostly survey and interview work over the past several semesters, I really wanted to try learning a new method. I both hated and loved it: the learning curve can be brutal, but once we got some preliminary results things felt worth it!
We used a process tracing software that allows you to analyze the decision making process of participants. We used this program to have people rate different foods on healthiness after checking some information about them. We gave them two types of information- positive (e.g. presence of vitamins) and negative (e.g. presence of artificial ingredients). Our pilot confirmed the hypothesis that people do in fact spend more time checking out negative information! (See chart: time/Y axis is in milliseconds)
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For the other project I spent the last 7 MONTHS harmonizing and cataloguing the many assets and services used to assess household wealth in low-income countries. The main question for this project is to examine how economic inequalities shape global health outcomes (e.g. obesity in adults and child growth) and to test whether different pathways to wealth might shape these things differently. I’m happy to announce that we in fact DID finish all the data harmonization and merging (it was no spring picnic) and the lab will now begin analyzing the data and examining different dimensions of wealth.

Uhh I will miss this amazing team for sure.. but hey- in about a week I graduate! What a strange feeling it is!

Cognition paper published!

Ta-da! Finally. Mine and Dr. Hruschka’s paper is finally out in the Journal of Cognition and Culture. This survey work was done over 2 years in both Eastern Europe and Southwestern U.S. So glad to see it in print!

HERE is the PDF: CognitiveDifferences_Paper2017. Also, if you don’t feel like reading it, i just recorded a 5-minute overview of the paper (recorded between meetings.. after 2 cups of coffee.. sorry if I talk quickly!).

Cooking: Digestion & Energy Uptake (3rd article is out)

Oh hey- I’ve been so busy with my dissertation defense, I didn’t even notice my third encyclopedia chapter coming out- Cooking: Increased Energy/Reduced Digestion 😀 If you can’t open the full text on the website, the PDF file is also HERE.

Short intro: Cooking food is a unique human activity spanning across all cultures, and humans appear to be evolutionarily adapted to this crucial aspect of their diet (Wrangham and Conklin-Brittain 2003). The value of cooking lies in its ability to widen the range of foods that are safe to eat (whether by making their digestion easier or neutralizing toxic compounds) as well as extract more energy from the foods ingested. Both human and animal studies illustrate that the more cooked food there is in a diet, the greater the net energy gain for the eater (Carmody and Wrangham 2009), and a diet of raw foods is energetically inadequate even when various nonthermal processing methods are employed (Koebnick et al. 1999). The effect of cooking on the energy gain from eating includes several mechanisms: increasing digestibility and thus caloric value of ingested foods, lowering the body’s energetic costs of digesting, and mounting an immune defense against food pathogens.

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Passed the Defense! Oh my..

So.. Yesterday I defended my doctoral dissertation. I’m not sure I believe this yet, but I do think i’m not dreaming right now. Almost teared up as my committee members shook my hand and congratulated me. What a journey!

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Lay Theories of Healthy Eating: Insights from Cross-Cultural Comparison

I thank my committee for all the advice and support given yesterday: Daniel Hruschka, Alexandra Brewis, and Meg Bruening. I also could not have finished all the data collection (>80 lengthy interviews!) on time on my own without my 8 apprentices. My undergraduate assistants have been quite amazing.

In terms of the bigger picture- there are so many people to thank, so many that have played key roles in my academic journey. The foundation was laid down when I was 5 years old when, despite having to go to the assigned elementary school, my grandmother and parents managed to enroll me into an English-specialized school on the other end of the city. This was right after USSR ended and Ukraine was newly independent and chaotic… Yet my family had the foresight in those rough times to send me on the ambitious path in life!

I do plan to post a short video with some results of my dissertation work soon, since many of my students and colleagues couldn’t be there. Stay tuned!