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    Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

    Guest Post: Give Your Goal Setting a Makeover by Asking the Right Questions!

    reduced author photoAs a coach, many folks come to me for support in reaching their goals.  Sometimes they are related to career. Other times, goals reference money, relationships, health and wellness, or are tied to multiple life spheres. I typically find that irrespective of the focus of the goal, goal setters usually come to me frustrated. What they have been doing hasn’t been working, and despite how important the goal is, they are ready to bang their heads against the proverbial wall.

    Continue Reading »


    Speaking With…: Brian Wansink

    This past Friday, Cornell University John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Laboratory Dr. Brian Wansink stopped by New York University after being tapped as the second featured speaker of a new lecture series on nutrition and chronic disease.

    Taking off from his bestseller Mindless Eating, the talk was appropriately titled, “How To Turn Mindless Eating Into Healthy Eating.”

    With those prevously mentioned credentials, you might picture a stiff, “all business” type who solves complex equations in his head while half-listening to you.

    Dr. Wansink, however, is reminiscent of the cool high school math teacher who wanted you to learn — and have fun while doing so. His research explanations are peppered with personal anecdotes, comedy, and facial expressions that sometimes rival those of Jim Carrey.

    A few hours before his afternoon presentation, I sat down with Dr. Wansink for a one-on-one interview.

    If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Wansink’s work, please click here to familiarize yourself with his research before reading the interview.

    I get such a kick out of all your publicity shots for Mindless Eating [NOTE: see accompanying picture]. They’re great! Have they all been photographers’ ideas?

    Ha! Thanks. Yeah, I’ve had some really creative photographers who set up these elaborate shoots. Some of those popcorn shots literally took twelve hours, from setup to cleanup. There was a LOT of popcorn all over the floor at the end that had to be cleaned up (laughs).

    So, I recently read that all of this research started as a result of you wanting people in the United States to eat more vegetables.

    That’s right.

    How did you go from that to your current line of research?

    Yeah, before I started my dissertation [in the late 80s], I wanted to know: “why do you finish your vegetables sometimes and other times you leave them on your plate?”. “Why are you hungry for them one night and not the next?” That then evolved into the idea of environmental factors that affect our overall eating patterns. It’s a lot more complex than people think because so many of our eating behaviors are automatic. This is all about getting below that surface. One of my first research studies had to do with family serving behavior. We had people come in, eat, and then answer questions about what they ate.

    Then, we showed them video footage of their meal. It is amazing how many people flat out deny, or are not aware of, their eating behavior. You’ll say to someone, “you had three servings of peas.” They’ll tell you, “No, I only had one!” You feel like saying, “Well, unless you have an evil twin…”

    It’s not until you show them the videotape that they change their mind. I once had a woman cry when she saw herself eating on camera! My research considers three angles. Not only what people are eating and how much of it, but also with what frequency.

    How did all that research turn into Mindless Eating?

    In 2004, I was in France and thought to myself, “I’d like to write a book, but I don’t know if I want it to be academic or pop.”

    That year, Bonnie Liebman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest interviewed me for their Nutrition Action newsletter, and suddenly a lot of requests for book deal started coming in. Most of them were e-mails and, I don’t know, nothing really stood out. Then I got a letter — an actual letter! — from Bantam Dell Books. One of the things I liked about them is that, as they told me, they are in the business of creating “real books that people read.”

    Interesting you say that, because I think that’s definitely one of the factors behind the popularity of Mindless Eating. It is relatable for and interesting to the average consumer.

    So at this point, it’s been a few years since the book came out. I was wondering about recent developments. For example, have you conducted any research on the effects of calorie postings in fast food restaurants?

    Oh yeah, I was involved in a VERY well-done study with Carnegie Mellon in regards to calorie labeling. We looked at McDonald’s, Subway, and Starbucks in terms of what consumers were buying before and after calories went up. And, you know what? The results were indeterminate. They were all over the board. Some people consumed fewer calories, others didn’t. I would actually be suspicious of anyone who told you they have seen a dramatic effect as a result of calorie labeling.

    That strikes me as really odd. What are your theories regarding the results of that study?

    There’s a few things to consider. First of all, when it comes to weight loss, a lot of people think: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind losing ten pounds, but I don’t want to change a thing.” Then there’s reactance, which is a psychological term. It’s basically resistance. Reactance is at play when you’re in your car and the person behind you honks so you pull away more slowly than you would otherwise.

    (Laughs) Or when you know someone at a restaurant is waiting for your table, so you sit there and take a little longer.

    Yeah. So I think, in a way, some people are seeing these calories and thinking, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re not going to tell ME what to eat!” Something similar happened in a study I did with Cornell. So, Cornell has a huge dining hall that services about 1100 people at one time. I wanted to see what effect going tray-less would have. I thought it would have two positive effects — it would result in reduced waste and reduced calories.

    The idea being that people couldn’t pile everything on at once but instead had to get up from their table each time they wanted more food?

    Yeah, exactly. Well, the results came in, and that night there was roughly 30 percent MORE plate waste! I think it comes back to that idea of reactance, where people saw this and thought, “Fine, I won’t use a tray, but I’m not going to eat less.” “font-style:italic;”>But that’s not to say that I think calorie labeling isn’t useful. Let me tell you something. The other day I went to Sbarro and saw that the slice of pizza I wanted was 787 calories. Aaaaaaaah!! So I think these calorie postings are going to serve as incentives for these food companies to say, “Alright, wait a minute, I want to turn that 787 into 690.” I think it’s going to nudge companies to drop the numbers, and that’s what will, in turn, affect consumers.

    Speaking of consumers, you recently finished your one-year post with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion working on the Dietary Gudelines. How did that go?

    Oh, it was great! I thought I was on a mission from God! My last day was January 20, when the new president took office. I was literally sending e-mails at 11:59 PM on January 19. I was still e-mailing at 12:05 AM on January 20, and I remember thinking “Wow, they didn’t shut off my inbox!” Then I got up to grab something to eat, and about ten minutes later I came back and I no longer had access.

    Any sneak peeks as to possible changes we may expect in the next round of Dietary Guidelines?

    I was involved with the selection of the 13 Dietary Guidelines committee members, and 11 of them have a behavioral focus. They operate where the rubber meets the road. That’s important, because they take pages upon pages of data and transform it into information for the masses that can be summarized in just a few sentences.

    So to wrap up, I’m interested in hearing about research you are in the process of conducting now.

    Oh yeah, sure. Well, we’re looking at what happens to people’s eating behaviors when they sit next to someone who has a much higher BMI than they do. We are also doing a study where we have someone wearing a fat suit and going through one side of a buffet very slowly, serving themselves a lot of food. Everyone on the other side of the salad bar takes a much lower amount of food compared to when that person is going through the salad bar without the fat suit on. It’s the whole concept of mimicking the attractive person. It’s terrible, because weight is the last acceptable prejudice in our society and it can really be crippling to a person’s self-esteem.

    Lately, the concept of “nature vs. nurture” has become central to the issue of childhood obesity. Do you have any thoughts on that from a behavioral standpoint?

    Well, we conducted a study with 4 year olds. We gave all the kids a questionnaire to take home. The point of the questionnaire was to determine to what extent parents forced their kids to eat everything that was on their plate. Of course, we disguised those questions among lots of filler like “what is your favorite TV show?”

    “What color are your curtains?”, etc.

    (Laughs) Exactly. So the parents, on a scale of one to nine, had to rate just how heavily they enforced “the clean plate club” at home. So, you know, nine was “my kids HAVE to finish everything on their plate or there is some kind of consequence” and one was “Ah, if they eat, they eat. If they don’t, they don’t.” We discovered that the children whose parents insisted they finish everything on their plate served themselves approximately 40 percent more cereal in our study.

    Wow! And based on what you talk about in Mindless Eating… the idea that, once food is in front of us, it is very easy to eat it all, that’s a significant finding.

    Yeah, the thinking is that children who are forced to clean their plate feel like the have no control when it comes to food, so they find ways to reassert their control and independence.

    Well, it looks like we’ve actually gone over time, but this has been fascinating. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you!

    Oh, absolutely. Thank you and best of luck with everything.

    Many thanks to Dr. Wansink for his time!


    You Ask, I Answer: Friend’s Weight Loss

    I have a question concerning my friend’s health.

    He is an obese 34 year-old man with a thyroid problem (which slows down his metabolism).

    As far as I know, he eats very little throughout the day, and what he eats consists mainly of hamburgers, beef, pizza, etc. He does not — and will not — eat vegetables, and his taste for fruits is very limited.

    He does not eat chicken or seafood either. He also skips breakfast every morning, and does not take vitamin supplements.

    I’m really concerned about his healthy but can’t seem to sway him to eat better.

    What are the risks he’s up against with his health if he continues to eat like this?

    What kind of eating plan would you advise he go on? Should he be eating more food in a day, but with fewer calories and in smaller quantities?

    I feel like the food he is eating isn’t getting properly broken down because of the lack of other foods in his diet. Is that true?

    — Kara (last name withheld)
    St, Louis, MO

    There are many things worth covering here, so let’s take everything in order.

    Your friend is certainly in a fragile situation.

    The few statistics you provide (thyroid issues, obesity) as well as your observations of his eating habits (a diet lacking fruits, vegetables, and, I’m assuming, whole grains) paint quite a bleak picture.

    I find it interesting that you are curious to know what negative health effects this may have on him, because I have a feeling he is already experiencing some of them.

    I am sure he feels short of breath when exerting the slightest bit of physical activity, experiences pain in his knees, and may even have sleep apnea (a potentially fatal condition in which people stop breathing for short periods of time in their sleep.)

    The examples mentioned above give us a clue of what is happening to some of your friend’s organs (i.e.: the heart may be working overtime, and joints can have too much pressure put on them.)

    Although the human body is very resistant, years and decades of these conditions really run it ragged, and “system malfunctions” (or meltdowns) can begin to happen.

    A heart that is put through the wringer every day for 10 or 15 years is not a healthy heart. Although your friend may be 34 years old chronologically, his organs very likely resemble that of an older person (depending on how long he has been obese.)

    You mention not being able to sway him to eat better, and it appears you aren’t too sure why.

    I’d like you to go back and re-read the questions you sent me. Pay attention to the feelings they conjure up.

    Perhaps you feel overwhelmed, not knowing where to start with your friend. Or hopeless that it will be hard to break this behavioral mold. You might even feel like whatever the “solution” is, it will be one that will take a lot of time, effort, and patience.

    I ask you to think about this because the thoughts and feelings that come to your mind will very likely reflect what your friend is feeling about all of this.

    A lot of tweaking needs to happen here — eating more small frequent meals, consuming more fruits and vegetables, cutting back on calories, increasing physical activity… I could go on.

    Believe it or not, though, that isn’t really the issue right now.

    Why? Because, most likely, your friend is already aware that some changes need to happen.

    The issue here is what is keeping your friend repeating behavioral eating patterns that keep him at an unhealthy weight.

    I am willing to bet that he either doesn’t know where to start, or the entire concept of eating healthy and losing weight is so overwhelming that the mere thought of it makes him want to forget the whole thing.

    It isn’t uncommon to contemplate a “can of worms” scenario like this one and be at a complete loss as to which particular worm to untangle first.

    All change, no matter how small, is difficult.

    I can’t provide an eating plan without knowing his medical history, food preferences, and bloodwork numbers, but here is what I suggest you do:

    Once, and only once, sit down with your friend and thoroughly explain your concerns to him.

    Let him know you are concerned about his weight from a health perspective, and ask him what his feelings and thoughts are on the matter.

    Be mindful, though, to stay away from tips, suggestions, or recommendations about what he should or should not eat. The point of this conversation is not to tell him what saturated fat does to the body or which diet book he should read.

    Simply recommend to him that, if his insurance covers it, he has the option of meeting with a Registered Dietitian, a trained professional who will work WITH him one-on-one to achieve whatever his goal may be.

    Once this conversation is done, you have to make a promise to yourself to let the issue go.

    That, my dear Kara, is really all you can do. Until your friend is ready to make a change, there is very little you can do.

    Lastly, your question about whether the food he is eating is being broken down properly even though his diet isn’t balanced? The answer is yes.

    The human digestive system breaks down all foods, regardless of how healthy — or unhealthy — they are.


    You Ask, I Answer: Food Cravings

    Is it true that craving a certain food is a sign that you are low in the nutrients that food has?

    — (Name withheld)
    Albany, NY

    This is a much-believed myth.

    Food cravings have more to do with rises and drops in specific brain chemicals (i.e.: serotonin) as well as emotional states than nutrition.

    Many people find, for instance, that they are more likely to crave fatty and/or sugary foods when they are stressed, sad, anxious, or lonely.

    It’s also worth pointing out that most cravings are for particular tastes and textures, as opposed to specific vitamins and minerals.

    A craving for ice cream, for instance, does not mean the body is in need of calcium. Nor does a craving for potato chips signify low potassium levels.

    If this were the case, people would be just as likely to crave a glass of milk or some baked tofu in place of ice cream, or an avocado or bananas rather than potato chips.

    Additionally, if craving were about nutrient needs, no one would ever have a nutritional deficiency!

    I find that frequent cravings often signify eating patterns that are too strict or limited.

    Liberalizing food selection usually leads to less cravings, and, consequently, less chances of losing control once that craving is fulfilled.

    Another important factor worth keeping in mind with cravings is to truly identify what is being sought.

    A lot of people fall into the trap of attempting to satisfy a craving by eating anything BUT the very thing they want.

    If you are craving chocolate, fruit isn’t going to cut it. Neither are whole wheat crackers or peanut butter. Coincidentally, sometimes the avoidal of a craving results in a higher caloric intake than the craving itself!

    The key, particularly with fatty and sugary cravings, is to find a small amount that is truly satisfying.

    For instance, when I crave chocolate, I have a few squares of an intensely dark chocolate that I love.

    Those two squares are less than 100 calories but, thanks to the rich and decadent flavor, fulfill my craving much better than, say, 250 calories of a regular milk chocolate bar.


    An Experiment to Remember

    In November of 1944, Physiologist Ancel Keys and some colleagues at the University of Minnesota conducted a fascinating study known as The Minnesota Experiment.

    It consisted of 36 healthy anti-war young males in good mental and physical health who were put on starvation diets to the point of losing a quarter of their body weight, and then refed.

    Although the original intent was to examine how starvation, and subsequent refeeding, affected World War II soldiers, this study shed fascinating light on what happens on semi-starvation diets.

    For the first 3 months, participants consumed 3,200 – 3,500 calories a day (the amount needed to maintain their weight at the time), eventually cutting down to 1800.

    The last 3 months, men were assigned different caloric levels to observe what changes the body undergoes during refeeding.

    Keep in mind that throughout the entire study, regardless of how many calories they were taking in, the men burned approximately 3,000 calories a day.

    By the way, when these men significantly cut their caloric intake — resulting in losing a quarter of their body weight, as evidenced by photos in which their ribcages stick out — their diet consisted mainly of carbohydrates, including white bread, potatoes, and jello.

    I would love to hear how Gary Taubes and his fervent low-carb supporters explain this within their framework of “carbohydrates make you fat, calories are irrelevant, and exercise has nothing to do with weight loss.”

    Anyhow, back to reality.

    The results of The Minnesota Experiment were published in 1950 in a 1,385-page tome titled The Biology of Human Starvation.

    It clearly demonstrates the immense psychical and psychological toll that starvation diets took on these men.

    Anemia, edema, dizziness, guilt, self-inflicted harm, shoplifting, loss of sex drive, and “semi-starvation neurosis” were experienced pretty much across the board.

    The more repressed food was, the more it was on these men’s minds, to the point of unhealthy obsession.

    It took at least a year for most of the participants to truly feel physically and psychologically recovered.

    For more information on this fascinating study, I highly recommend reading this summary.


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