Metabolic Syndrome and Mental Decline: Is Exercise A Feasible Prevention?

Metabolic syndrome (MetS) “is an example of a health variable that may play a causal role in cognitive and language declines with age,” Avron Spiro III, PhD, said at a symposium Aug. 7 at the convention.

A constellation of five interrelated risk factors (a large waistline, a high triglyceride level, a low HDL cholesterol level, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar; three are needed to be diagnosed with MetS), MetS is known to increase an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. Recent research has also linked cardiovascular and metabolic declines to decreases in different cognitive abilities among older adults, showing reduced cognitive speed, executive functions, memory, and language functioning (i.e., word finding, sentence processing).

obesity1Concurrently, we also know the lack of physical activity is closely linked to metabolic syndrome, and that regular exercise can help to control weight, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, and improve many aspects of mental health, including cognitive decline. Due to the indisputable evidence of the physical and mental health benefits, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is recommended five days a week. However, less than half of American adults meet this recommendation, and less than 15 percent perform regular vigorous physical activity.

Pretty gloomy statistics, right? As Edmund Acevedo, PhD, said, “although physical activity is important in decreasing the risk of having metabolic syndrome, it is clear that stk327235rknthe challenge lies in increasing physical activity.”

A good example is physical education classes in public schools. Many schools do not have enough gym teachers, gyms (or both), or have cut out gym classes because of increasing educational demands. Children and adolescents need even more regular exercise than adults – at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day.

More than a third of U.S. children overweight or obese today, which puts them at risk of developing a whole spectrum of diseases, metabolic syndrome included. It is thus essential, in my opinion, to start the prevention of overweight and obesity as early as possible as a preventive measure for MetS and the physical and mental decline that accompanies it later in life.

And while the questions of who is going to do it, when, and who is going to pay for it are essential, one thing is clear – people must reach the recommended physical activity levels starting at the earliest age possible, and continue throughout the school years. State legislatures and departments of education should therefore instigate or strengthen the physical education policies (and before- and after-school policies) to meet these goals. Once that is achieved, we can hope that the regular exercise habits adopted in school continue through adulthood, and lead to better health, physical and psychological.

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

Healthy Food Choices and Safety: Can You Have It All?

That was the question that stuck with me most after leaving the paper session “Influences on Healthy Eating Decisions.”

163118519According to the research led by Anthony G. Salerno, PhD, feeling safe may encourage people to eat larger amounts of unhealthy foods, outside of their awareness. “Feelings of safety increase people’s perception that they are protected from danger, which consequently decreases their sensitivity to harmful behaviors,” he said. Unhealthy eating is one of them, and can lead to harmful consequences. When people feel safe, they are less sensitive to these harmful consequences and are more likely to consume unhealthy foods, which can lead to weight gain and obesity.

This implies that our environment can play a crucial role in our determination of adhering to a healthy eating pattern. However, does that mean that you should move to an unsafe neighborhood to shed the pounds more easily? I’d say not so fast.

I caught up with Dr. Salerno this week, and here is what he had to say:

“While it obviously would not be a good idea for people to start seeking out harmful environments, I do think people may benefit from being mindful of the fact that just because they are in a safe environment, it does not mean that this protects them from their own unsafe behaviors. In general, it is of great importance to a person’s psychological well-being that they feel safe. However, people should also be mindful of the fact that feeling safe can sometimes increase our willingness to engage in behaviors with potentially harmful consequences (in this case the consumption of unhealthy food). So by simply being aware of the influence of safety on our behavior, we are more likely to undermine the undesirable consequences it has on us.”

122401671Stress is also linked to overeating, weight gain and obesity. The evidence that feeling safe may be a contributing factor when it comes to food choices and weight makes me wonder, where is the balance between the two when it comes to eating healthy? Constant stress can lead to suboptimal food choices, but so can the feeling of safety, according to Salerno. So does a golden mean between how we feel on a regular basis regarding our safety, and how much (as well as how healthy) we eat even exist?

While this may be more of a philosophical question, I think that it might be the intensity of the feelings that prompts the consumption of unhealthy foods. In other words, feeling very secure and at ease, as well as feeling very stressed, could be leading to overeating and weight gain. It is also important to recognize other behaviors and feelings that accompany feeling safe or stressed, which can also be contributors to unhealthy eating.

After all, eating is much more than merely satisfying hunger. We eat in response to a variety of emotions, both positive and negative. It is thus essential to recognize our feelings that trigger eating and overeating. Once eating triggers are identified, further steps can be taken to break the emotional eating habit and adopt a healthier eating pattern, which in turn can help reduce overweight and obesity.

Have more thoughts on this topic? Reply below. Dr. Salerno is also happy to answer questions via email. You can reach him at

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

Genetics and Obesity: Where Do the Environment and Behavior Fall In?

It is now a well-known fact that obesity is largely influenced by genetics, and obesity-related genes are being identified. Based on numerous twin, family, and adoption studies, our weight is heritable by more than 50 percent. However, if that’s the case, why is the world fatter now than ever before, and why has obesity not been so widespread 200 years ago?

The answer may lie in the way that our current environment, sense of satiety and obesity genes interact through a satiety responsiveness mechanism.

In a recent study discussed at a session yesterday, Jane Wardle, PhD, and colleagues tested the hypothesis that satiety responsiveness is associated with polygenic obesity risk, and may thus be an intermediate neurobehavioral process that links genetic risk of obesity with weight gain. They observed a population-based cohort of twin children and found that low satiety responsiveness is one of the mechanisms through which genetic predisposition leads to weight gain in a food-rich environment.

stk74185corEvolutionarily, it makes sense and explains why so many more children and adults are obese now than at any point in the past. Food, and specifically processed, high-fat, high-sugar and high-calorie fast food has been at the peak of its abundance for years. It is also highly appealing because of its taste, and is available to the vast majority of people worldwide due to low cost. Individuals who are genetically predisposed to low satiety and who choose to eat these (and other energy-dense) foods are at higher risk for obesity than those who do not have the genetic predisposition. The latter ones will feel a satiety response kick in after consuming an adequate number of calories, whereas the former group will continue eating as the satiety response will be weak, or not kick in until much later in the eating process. When such energy-dense foods were not available in the past, individuals genetically predisposed to low satiety were at a lower risk for obesity than they are now, simply because of the unavailability of caloric overabundance in the environment.

Knowing that this is one way in which our genes predispose us to overeating and obesity, can we take certain practical steps to lower the obesity pandemic? Could enhancing the satiety response help prevent weight gain in the genetically at-risk individuals? If so, should they all just sprinkle Sensa on everything they eat throughout their lifetime, or is that not enough? Is it possible that after enhancing the satiety response, the brains and bodies of the predisposed individuals will find other strategies to increase caloric intake and maintain obesity?

While the science may not have all the answers yet, these are all important questions to ask as the large-scale research on understanding, preventing, and treating obesity continues. It is a complex and multi-faceted disease and even though tackling it via satiety enhancement may not solve all obesity cases, it may nevertheless put us one step closer to lowering obesity rates worldwide.

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

Top Five Reasons Why Every Psychology Grad Student Should Come to the Annual APA Convention (And How to Prepare For It)

The annual convention of the American Psychological Association is a unique event not only for psychologists and people who work in the various sectors in the field of psychology. It is also an excellent opportunity for psychology graduate students (both master’s and doctoral candidates). Even though I am attending the conference as a neuroscientist who finished graduate school a while ago (I used to attend the annual APA conventions while I was in grad school), I want to share my thoughts on why every psychology graduate student should attend the annual APA convention.

1. You will learn much more about the most recent breakthroughs in the field. Psychology is a hot science, and while you are undoubtedly learning a lot in your own institution, no other event will give you an opportunity to learn more than the annual APA convention. Make sure to start perusing the schedule of the events early, pick and choose the ones you’d like to attend, and learn about the areas that interest you most.

2. You will make connections. Widely attended by world-renowned scholars and established professionals in the field, the convention is the ideal place to make professional connections. The environment is also extremely conducive to networking, with many social events scheduled throughout the four days, making it easy for people to meet and establish new connections. Don’t be shy! People are here to talk to other psychologists and students with similar interests. Be sure to bring your business card for quick and smooth exchanges of contact information.

3. You will be able to explore the career opportunities available to you. This year, the APA is offering a new PsycCareers LIVE program (Booth No. 370), which will allow you to talk directly to recruiters and employers (through visiting employer booths), connect to prospective employers, access live career management sessions, and attend moderated panel discussion sessions to learn about what employers really need. Make sure you prepare in advance. Create your profile and upload your resume at, and flag yourself as a Career Fair participant, which will allow potential employers to reach out to you directly. Dress appropriately (business casual), ask questions and be confident.

4. You will meet other graduate students. The convention has plenty of sessions and events that cater specifically to graduate students. There is even a session (in the morning of the first day of the convention) called “Making the Most of Convention” for graduate students, which I highly recommend to attendees of future conventions. In addition, make use of the social hours for the divisions related to your professional interests (they are usually open to all convention attendees), and go to the social hours that are specifically for graduate students. Both are a great way to meet other students as well as get to know some professionals in the fields that interest you most.

5. You may discover what exactly you want to pursue after graduate school. While many graduate students already have clear goals or ideas of what they want to do after grad school (such as teaching), some may have less-structured plans, especially in the first year or two. The convention is an ideal place to learn more about the areas of psychology that you’re most passionate about, and learn more about yourself by exploring the fields that you’re less familiar with, as well as meeting established professionals from different sectors of the field. Don’t hesitate to introduce yourself to the people you admire or whose work you find interesting, and ask questions to get an insight into the work they do.

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

Food for Thought: Too Sweet for their Own Good?

160493980Most of us, intentionally or not, have consumed foods and beverages flavored with artificial, or non-nutritive, sweeteners. They are widespread in processed foods, including soft drinks, candy, dairy products, baked goods and numerous other products. The words aspartame, sucralose or saccharin no longer look foreign or hard to pronounce. On the contrary, they are frequently used by millions worldwide, and many people are not even aware that their low-calorie (but delicious!) foods often contain one or more artificial sweeteners.

The idea is appealing at the very least – sweetness without the caloric impact (and guilt). Why drink a can of soda that has 130 calories when you can enjoy one that has none? This is one reason why using artificial sweeteners has been a strategy to combat the obesity epidemic. Similarly, non-nutritive sweeteners are an attractive option for those with diabetes, because unlike sugar, they do not raise blood glucose levels since they do not contain carbohydrates.

However, it turns out that the process is more complicated than it may seem. According to Susan E. Swithers, PhD, a psychologist from Purdue University, the consumption of artificial sweeteners might contribute to, rather than ameliorate, weight gain and exacerbate chronic diseases like diabetes, heart diseases and high blood pressure. She talked about this yesterday in her presentation.

“Although we’ve been led to believe that artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame will automatically lead to better health outcomes, long-term data from human cohort studies indicate that risks for chronic diseases is actually higher in people who are consumers of diet beverages compared to those who don’t use them,” said Swithers.

Based both on her as well as prior animal research, high-intensity sweeteners have been associated with increased food intake and weight gain. Interestingly, though, consumption of artificial sweeteners (as opposed to glucose) caused the most weight gain in animals fed “Westernized” diets high in fats and sugars.

With that said, the idea that non-caloric, high-intensity sweeteners may promote rather than prevent weight gain is not a new one. The premise behind it is that non-caloric sweeteners and fat substitutes disrupt taste-calorie associations that regulate eating and adiposity. In other words, people tend to calorically over-compensate for the zero-calorie beverages or low-calorie foods they consume. The result is too many calories, often from health-wise suboptimal sources, and weight gain.

Yet Swithers’ finding is an intriguing one. It suggests that some of us may be more prone to weight gain from non-nutritive sweetener use than others. And unfortunately, those who are at highest risk are also those who are most likely to choose them.

“We tend to think that the negative effects of artificial sweeteners on things like weight gain are due to cognitive distortions that lead people to overeat, but the animal work indicates that these products can interfere with much more fundamental learning processes that are typically happening in the background without us having to use cognitive resources,” she said. “And these data show that interfering with these basic processes can alter release of hormones that normally help us regulate not only our food intake, but our blood sugar as well, and that have protective effects on the cardiovascular system over the long run. So even if people could somehow compensate for the tendency to overeat, these physiological effects may still make them more vulnerable to chronic diseases.”

In light of these findings, what recommendations about artificial sweetener use should a doctor give to an obese patient in order to promote weight loss? Should his or her regular diet and gender be considered? While it may still be too early to translate and apply animal research findings to humans, as with most things in life, I would err on the side of caution. Even though artificial sweeteners have been on the market for several decades now, we still don’t know everything about the non-nutritive sweeteners. A regular chocolate chip cookie – if you really want it – and a brisk walk may therefore be your best bet when trying to prevent the excess pounds.

Have more thoughts on this topic? Reply below.

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.

10 Reasons Why I Still Love Coming to the Annual APA Convention

The annual APA convention is a truly fascinating event. I have several meetings under my belt now, and I have only good things to say. I also firmly believe that every psychologist, neuroscientist and psychology student should attend it. And while we all might have slightly different reasons for coming to it, I want to share the 10 reasons why I love attending the annual APA convention.

1. It’s the biggest gathering of psychologists and psychology students in the world. I think this reason alone is enough to want to attend the convention. No other event (anywhere) has as many attendees as the APA convention, and your chances of meeting and hearing world-renowned psychologists and researchers are greatest nowhere else but right here.

2. Networking. This almost goes without saying, but the annual convention of the APA is probably the best place to network if you are working or studying in the area of psychology. This applies to both networking with other specialists in your field, as well as with people from other fields in psychology, making the convention unique in that regard.

3. Diversifying yourself. It is important to stay up to date on the general literature and advances in the field, not just on the specific area that you work in. Personally, I probably learn most about the research that is outside my own area (appetite and addiction) at the annual APA convention.

4. Perusing posters. It is a great way to see summaries (in five minutes or less) of some hot-off-the-press research. By coming to the APA convention, I am one of the first to learn about the newest research that is taking place in the field of psychology.

5. Bumping into or setting up meetings with people whom you might not otherwise see.People come from all over to attend the annual APA convention. Although we tend to feel like we keep in touch with people via social media or email, the truth is that seeing people in person is really important, too, and helps to solidify connections. When I come to APA, I make a plan to meet up with former colleagues, mentors and friends beforehand, and look forward to bumping into other people at the meeting.

6. Meeting the psychology “giants” you admire most. Many of us have at least a few researchers, doctors, educators or policymakers in our field we truly admire and look up to. There may be few opportunities to meet them in person, especially because they tend to be the busiest people. However, many of them come to the convention (even if not every year), making it the best place to meet them, introduce yourself and learn even more about the work they do.

7. Meeting graduate students. Even though I finished graduate school (what feels like) a long time ago, I always find it exciting to meet new graduate students. It’s refreshing at the very least, and I sometimes meet some who are deeply interested in areas of psychology that are close to my own field.

8. The number and variety of sessions provided. The annual APA convention provides so many different sessions and different types of sessions that I always find more than a few (and more often than not, too many) sessions that I want to attend.

9. Continuing education credits. The convention provides an excellent opportunity to be a lifelong learner and to continuously add to my professional development. I can also meet very well-known psychologists and experts in the field, who often lead the workshops.

10. It’s fun. The whole experience of the convention itself is unbelievable, even if sometimes it may feel overwhelming. I cannot think of many other professional, academic, or educational events (that are also very social) that would top the annual APA convention.

Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.