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.

Psychologists Can Do More to Prevent Metabolic Syndrome

We all know that America’s sedentary behaviors and love of fast food are undermining our health, but are we aware of just how much it’s hurting the next generation? Speakers at a session Thursday on the impact of metabolic syndrome shared some staggering findings:

  • Children as young as 5 are now showing signs of metabolic syndrome.
  • One-third of all American kids are overweight, as are close to 30 percent of children ages 2 to 5.
  • 50 percent of children who are obese at age 7 remain obese as adults.

57567393“The statistics are scary, but they are modifiable,” said Alan Delamater, PhD, of the University of Miami. “Psychologists are in the business of changing behaviors.”
Now more than ever, psychologists need to step up their efforts to prevent metabolic syndrome, he and other presenters said. Characterized by such factors as excess abdominal fat, high blood pressure and low HDL (good) cholesterol, metabolic syndrome increases the risk for stroke, diabetes, heart disease and possibly even cognitive impairment, the speakers said.

Research has shown that physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight are key to preventing the syndrome — behaviors that psychologists are well-equipped to help their clients with. But psychologists also need to help change the culture. To make a real difference, said Delamater, we need public policy changes, such as curbing the food industry’s marketing to children and ensuring schools offer daily physical education.

“You can’t just look at one system,” said Dawn Wilson, PhD of the University of South Carolina-Columbia. “You have to look at all of them.”