1. Study suggests mindfulness may help reduce cravings for food and drugs

    February 20, 2018 by Ashley

    From the City University London press release:

    Mindfulness strategies may help prevent or interrupt cravings for food and drugs, such as cigarettes and alcohol, by occupying short term memory, according to a new review from City, University of London.

    Looking at experimental studies that have examined the effects of different types of mindfulness strategies on cravings, it was found that in many instances these strategies brought about an immediate reduction in craving. The research was published in Clinical Psychology Review.

    Craving can be defined as an intense, conscious desire, usually to consume a specific drug or food. There is also a significant body of research that suggests it is causally linked to behaviour. For example, craving predicts relapse episodes in substance use and food cravings predict both eating and weight gain. As such, cravings are often considered an appropriate target for intervention.

    Mindfulness meditation has a long tradition of being used to address cravings. According to ancient Buddhist texts, craving leads to suffering but can be avoided through mindfulness meditation practice. More recently, mindfulness-based interventions have been used to explicitly target cravings with the aim of bringing about clinically relevant changes to behaviour.

    Mindfulness interventions typically employ a range of different types of strategy, for example they may include exercises designed to promote greater awareness of bodily sensations, to develop an attitude of acceptance toward uncomfortable feelings, or to help individuals see themselves as separate from their thoughts and emotions.

    However, there is currently a limited understanding of the ways in which these different types of strategy may influence craving-related outcomes, either independently, or in combination. As a result, the review aimed to address these limitations by reviewing studies that have examined the independent effects of mindfulness on craving.

    Looking at 30 studies which met the criteria, it was found that some of the beneficial effects seen for mindfulness strategies in relation to craving are likely to stem from interrupting cravings by loading working memory, a part of our short-term memory which is concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing.

    In addition, it was also seen that mindfulness reduced craving over the medium term, most likely due to ‘extinction processes’; essentially strategies that result in the individual inhibiting craving-related responses and behaviours which eventually lead to reduced cravings.

    Dr Katy Tapper, author of the review and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at City, University of London, said:

    “The research suggests that certain mindfulness-based strategies may help prevent or interrupt cravings by occupying a part of our mind that contributes to the development of cravings. Whether mindfulness strategies are more effective than alternative strategies, such as engaging in visual imagery, has yet to be established. However, there is also some evidence to suggest that engaging in regular mindfulness practice may reduce the extent to which people feel the need to react to their cravings, though further research is needed to confirm such an effect.”


  2. Study suggests painting a realistic picture of difficulties of weight loss may actually be helpful

    February 9, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    To reach your New Year’s fitness goals, a bit of reverse psychology might be in order. Telling people that weight loss is extremely challenging — rather than imparting a “You can do it!” mantra — motivated them to shed more weight, according to a new study by psychologists at Drexel University. However, the strategy did not compel participants to achieve the goal for which it was originally designed: to modify or replace many of the unhealthy foods in their homes.

    The study’s findings, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have conflicting implications, says Michael Lowe, PhD, a professor at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

    “On one hand, giving overweight people a realistic sense of the dilemma that they are in and the powerful forces they are up against — including a genetic predisposition toward obesity and an increased susceptibility to many food cues in the environment — may actually promote cognitive restraint over their eating in the short-term,” Lowe said. “But, on the other hand, this message did not motivate participants to make numerous changes to the foods they surround themselves with.”

    Lowe and a team of researchers originally set out to determine the effectiveness of three weight loss interventions: behavior therapy, behavior therapy plus meal replacements, or a condition focused on getting people to change foods in their home food environments. They enrolled 262 overweight and obese individuals and assigned them to one of the three methods, while tracking their weight over a three-year period.

    Behavior therapy — the current “gold standard” in weight loss treatment — involves group support, regular weigh-ins, exercise, explicit goal setting and monitoring food intake, while meal replacement treatment replaces breakfast and lunch with calorie-controlled shakes or nutrition bars.

    Behavior therapy is aimed at bolstering someone’s internal sense of self-regulation over food intake and exercise. But research has shown that increases in self-control are not sustainable, and lost weight is almost always regained. The powerful lure of foods high in fat, sugar and salt has been well-documented, and existing treatments do not do enough to ensure that foods kept in the home are permanently changed in ways that make self-control more feasible, according to Lowe.

    “You can’t just give advice,” he said. “You have to work with people to eliminate and substitute very specific foods, and teach them to prepare food differently.”

    That’s why his research team hypothesized that modifying the home food environment (or HFE) would be the most effective strategy for losing and maintaining weight loss. Participants in this group were given homework assignments to identify and make numerous changes to specific foods that were still satisfying but less calorically damaging.

    “Asking people to make healthy decisions, when there are thousands of food choices available, is both emotionally challenging and also complicated,” Lowe said. “HFE treatment is really about mechanically trying to ensure that these changes are made, so the level of chronic temptation generated by foods in their homes is reduced.”

    Most importantly, the research team repeatedly reminded the HFE group about the challenges associated with weight loss and maintenance. In doing this, the researchers aimed to acknowledge the participants’ vulnerability to overconsume favorite foods.

    “We said, ‘It’s impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you’re facing.’ The reason we did this was not to discourage them, but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control,” Lowe said.

    People struggling with their weight are likely to hold themselves responsible, even though a number of internal (heredity, for example) and external (fast food restaurants) forces are at play and beyond their control, Lowe said. The researchers suggested that by making multiple changes to their food environment, participants would be reducing the need to perpetually exercise self-control to maintain the weight they lost.

    In addition to measuring the participants’ weights during six assessment sessions over three years, the researchers also assessed conditions such as binge eating, quality of life, cognitive restraint and food cravings by using questionnaires and statistical analysis.

    At the end of the three-year study period, the researchers found that those in the HFE group lost more weight than those in the behavior therapy group. However, the differential in weight loss was modest, and all participants showed the familiar trend toward weight regain.

    “We failed to get them to translate our warnings into the kind of actions we were trying to get them to take,” Lowe said.

    The warnings did, however, have a positive — though unanticipated — effect. Cognitive restraint — defined by a participant’s ability to actively make healthy choices and measured with mediation analysis — showed the longest, most prolonged increase in the HFE participants, when compared to the other two treatment groups.

    This suggests that the researchers’ rhetoric about the difficulties of sustaining weight loss may have actually caused the participants in the HFE group to “push back” against this message and increase their vigilance over their eating, Lowe said.

    “That is, by questioning the usefulness of building self-control skills, the HFE treatment may have bolstered the very capacity it was meant to downplay — stronger self-control with regard to food,” the study authors write.

    Though surprising, these results have potentially clinically-useful implications. By emphasizing the many factors that make lasting weight loss so difficult, it may help motivate individuals to mentally and behaviorally cope with these factors, according to Lowe.

    “Rather than acting as cheerleaders giving facile encouragement, leaders of weight loss groups might serve their clients better by providing a more sobering description of the challenges participants face,” Lowe explained.

    However, since the participants in the HFE condition did not make greater changes to their home food environment, future studies should examine how to better improve and monitor this weight loss intervention, such as sending dieticians or other practitioners directly to clients’ homes for periodic visits.

    For Lowe, the study reinforces the challenging reality for those seeking to maintain weight loss — and makes a strong case for policies (such as Philadelphia’s beverage tax) that focus on preventing, rather than treating, the problem of obesity in the United States.

    “Once these conditions develop and you are continuing to live in the same obesogenic environment, it is unrealistic to expect that many people will be able to sustain a large weight loss,” he said. “Society ultimately needs to prevent these unhealthy weight gains before they occur.”


  3. Study suggests teens likely to crave junk food after watching TV ads

    January 20, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Cancer Research UK press release:

    Teenagers who watch more than three hours of commercial TV a day are more likely to eat hundreds of extra junk food snacks, according to a report by Cancer Research UK.

    Being bombarded by TV ads for unhealthy, high calorie food could lead teens to eat more than 500 extra snacks like crisps, biscuits and fizzy drinks throughout the course of a single year compared to those who watch less TV.

    Energy and other fizzy drinks high in sugar, takeaways and chips were some of the foods which were more likely to be eaten by teens who watched a lot of TV with adverts.

    The report, based on a YouGov survey, questioned 3,348 young people in the UK between the ages of 11-19 on their TV viewing habits and diet.

    When teens watched TV without adverts researchers found no link between screen time and likelihood of eating more junk food. This suggests that the adverts on commercial TV may be driving youngsters to snack on more unhealthy food.

    The report is also the biggest ever UK study to assess the association of TV streaming on diet.

    It found that teens who said they regularly streamed TV shows with ads were more than twice as likely (139%) to drink fizzy drinks compared to someone with low advert exposure from streaming TV, and 65% more likely to eat more ready meals than those who streamed less TV.

    Regularly eating high calorie food and drink – which usually has higher levels of fat and sugar- increases the risk of becoming overweight or obese.

    Obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK after smoking, and is linked to 13 types of cancer including bowel, breast, and pancreatic.

    Dr Jyotsna Vohra, a lead author on the study from Cancer Research UK, said: “This is the strongest evidence yet that junk food adverts could increase how much teens choose to eat. We’re not claiming that every teenager who watches commercial TV will gorge on junk food but this research suggests there is a strong association between advertisements and eating habits.

    “It’s been 10 years since the first, and only, TV junk food marketing regulations were introduced by Ofcom and they’re seriously out of date. Ofcom must stop junk food adverts being shown during programmes that are popular with young people, such as talent shows and football matches, where there’s currently no regulation.

    “Our report suggests that reducing junk food TV marketing could help to halt the obesity crisis.”

    The Obesity Health Alliance recently published a report which found that almost 60% of food and drink adverts shown during programmes popular with adults and 4-16 year olds were for unhealthy foods which would be banned from children’s TV channels.

    Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: “Obese children are five times more likely to remain obese as adults which can increase their risk of cancer later in life.

    “The food industry will continue to push their products into the minds of teens if they’re allowed to do so. The Government needs to work with Ofcom to protect the health of the next generation.”


  4. Study suggests food cues undermine healthy eating choices

    January 11, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UVA) press release:

    Obesity has become a major health issue due to the current ‘obesogenic’ environment in which unhealthy food is both easy and cheap to purchase. As a result, many (government) organisations encourage healthy eating habits among the general public by providing information on healthy diets. Nevertheless, when people encounter stimuli that they have learned to associate with certain snacks, they tend to choose those products, even when they know these are unhealthy. This is the finding of research carried out by psychologists Aukje Verhoeven, Poppy Watson and Sanne de Wit from the University of Amsterdam (UvA).

    The researchers investigated the effects of health warnings on food choices in the presence or absence of food-associated stimuli. This includes every kind of stimuli associated with food, including adverts that trigger thoughts of a tasty snack or the sight or smell of food which leads to craving.

    ‘Health warnings often make people want to choose healthier food products, yet many still end up picking unhealthy food products’, says Verhoeven. ‘We suspected this might partly be due to the fact that people learn to associate specific cues in their environment with certain food choices. For example, eating a cheese burger regularly occurs in the visual presence of a large logo M. This causes a strong association between the stimulus (the logo) and the rewarding experience of eating a cheese burger. Simply seeing an M eventually causes us to crave a burger and triggers a learned behaviour to head to a fast-food restaurant. Unhealthy choices are therefore automatically activated by learned associations, making health warnings, which focus on conscious choices, ineffective.’

    To test their hypothesis, the researchers used a specific computer task, the Pavlovian-instrumental transfer, in a controlled setting to simulate the learning processes between certain (food) choices and environmental stimuli in subjects. ‘Health warnings for healthy food choices only seem to be effective in an environment where no food cues are present. Whenever stimuli are present which people have come to associate with certain snacks, they choose the accompanying (unhealthy) food product, even when they know it is unhealthy or aren’t really craving that food product. It didn’t matter whether we alerted the subjects before or after they learned the associations with food cues’, says Verhoeven.

    How do you ensure people don’t just have the intention to buy healthier food products but actually go ahead and do so? The researchers suggest decreasing the level of food-associated stimuli people, and children in particular, are exposed to. One way to do this, for example, would be to decrease the amount of advertising for unhealthy foods. Also, the results suggest that these processes could in turn stimulate the choice for healthy products. Verhoeven: ‘It is worthwhile exposing people to healthy food products together with certain environmental cues more often, for example by showing more adverts for healthy products. The environment could also be shaped such that healthy choices are the easiest to make, for instance by placing healthy products at the front in canteens or by replacing chocolate bars with apples and healthy snacks at the cash register. In this way, you give people a gentle push in the right direction.’


  5. Study suggests food may affect mood – and differently depending on age

    December 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Binghamton University press release:

    Diet and dietary practices differentially affect mental health in young adults versus older adults, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

    Lina Begdache, assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University, along with fellow Binghamton researchers, conducted an anonymous internet survey, asking people around the world to complete the Food-Mood Questionnaire (FMQ), which includes questions on food groups that have been associated with neurochemistry and neurobiology. Analyzing the data, Begdache and Assistant Professor of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering Nasim Sabounchi found that mood in young adults (18-29) seems to be dependent on food that increases availability of neurotransmitter precursors and concentrations in the brain (meat). However, mood in mature adults (over 30 years) may be more reliant on food that increases availability of antioxidants (fruits) and abstinence of food that inappropriately activates the sympathetic nervous system (coffee, high glycemic index and skipping breakfast).

    “One of the major findings of this paper is that diet and dietary practices differentially affect mental health in young adults versus mature adults,” said Begdache. “Another noteworthy finding is that young adult mood appears to be sensitive to build-up of brain chemicals. Regular consumption of meat leads to build-up of two brain chemicals (serotonin and dopamine) known to promote mood. Regular exercise leads to build-up of these and other neurotransmitters as well. In other words, young adults who ate meat (red or white) less than three times a week and exercised less than three times week showed a significant mental distress.”

    “Conversely, mature adult mood seems to be more sensitive to regular consumption of sources of antioxidants and abstinence of food that inappropriately activates the innate fight-or-flight response (commonly known as the stress response),” added Begdache. “With aging, there is an increase in free radical formation (oxidants), so our need for antioxidants increases. Free radicals cause disturbances in the brain, which increases the risk for mental distress. Also, our ability to regulate stress decreases, so if we consume food that activates the stress response (such as coffee and too much carbohydrates), we are more likely to experience mental distress.”

    Begdache and her team are interested in comparing dietary intake between men and women in relation to mental distress. There is a gender difference in brain morphology which may be also sensitive to dietary components, and may potentially explain some the documented gender-specific mental distress risk, said Begdache.


  6. Study links healthy eating to kids’ happiness

    December 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the BioMed Central press release:

    Healthy eating is associated with better self-esteem and fewer emotional and peer problems, such as having fewer friends or being picked on or bullied, in children regardless of body weight, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health. Inversely, better self-esteem is associated with better adherence to healthy eating guidelines, according to researchers from The Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

    Dr Louise Arvidsson, the corresponding author said: “We found that in young children aged two to nine years there is an association between adherence to healthy dietary guidelines and better psychological well-being, which includes fewer emotional problems, better relationships with other children and higher self-esteem, two years later. Our findings suggest that a healthy diet can improve well-being in children.”

    Examining 7,675 children two to nine years of age from eight European countries — Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Sweden — the researchers found that a higher Healthy Dietary Adherence Score (HDAS) at the beginning of the study period was associated with better self-esteem and fewer emotional and peer problems two years later.

    The HDAS aims to capture adherence to healthy dietary guidelines, which include limiting intake of refined sugars, reducing fat intake and eating fruit and vegetables. A higher HDAS indicates better adherence to the guidelines — i.e. healthier eating. The guidelines are common to the eight countries included in this study.

    The authors found that better self-esteem at the beginning of the study period was associated with a higher HDAS two years later and that the associations between HDAS and wellbeing were similar for children who had normal weight and children who were overweight.

    Dr Arvidsson said: “It was somewhat surprising to find that the association between baseline diet and better well-being two years later was independent of children’s socioeconomic position and their body weight.”

    The authors used data from the Identification and Prevention of Dietary- and Lifestyle-Induced Health Effects in Children and Infants Study, a prospective cohort study that aims to understand how to prevent overweight in children while also considering the multiple factors that contribute to it.

    At the beginning of the study period parents were asked to report how often per week their children consumed food from a list of 43 items. Depending on their consumption of these foods, children were then assigned an HDAS score. Psychosocial wellbeing was assessed based on self-esteem, parent relations, emotional and peer problems as reported by the parents in response to validated questionnaires. Height and weight of the children were measured. All questionnaires and measurements were repeated two years later.

    The study is the first to analyze the individual components included in the HDAS and their associations with children’s wellbeing. The authors found that fish intake according to guidelines (2-3 times per week) was associated with better self-esteem and no emotional and peer problems. Intake of whole meal products were associated with no peer problems.

    The associations were found to go in both directions; better wellbeing was associated with consumption of fruit and vegetables, sugar and fat in accordance with dietary guidelines, better self-esteem was associated with sugar intake according to guidelines, good parent relations were associated with fruit and vegetable consumption according to guidelines, fewer emotional problems were associated with fat intake according to guidelines and fewer peer problems were associated with consumption of fruit and vegetables according to guidelines.

    The authors caution that children with poor diet and poor wellbeing were more likely to drop out of the study and were therefore underrepresented at the two-year follow-up, which complicates conclusions about the true rates of poor diet and poor wellbeing. As the study is observational and relies on self-reported data from parents, no conclusions about cause and effect are possible.

    Dr Arvidsson said: “The associations we identified here need to be confirmed in experimental studies including children with clinical diagnosis of depression, anxiety or other behavioral disorders rather than well-being as reported by parents.”

     


  7. When vegetables are closer in price to chips, people eat healthier

    November 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    When healthier food, like vegetables and dairy products, is pricier compared to unhealthy items, like salty snacks and sugary sweets, Americans are significantly less likely to have a high-quality diet, a new Drexel University study found.

    The research, led by David Kern, PhD, an adjunct faculty member at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, and Amy Auchincloss, PhD, an associate professor in the school, sought to find out the real effect that price difference has on the quality of diets in the United States.

    “We found that, on average, healthier perishable foods were nearly twice as expensive as unhealthy packaged foods: 60 cents vs. 31 cents per serving, respectively,” said Kern, lead author of the study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “As the gap between neighborhood prices of healthier and unhealthier foods got wider, study participants had lower odds of having a healthier diet.”

    For example, the study found that for every 14 percent increase in the healthy-to-unhealthy price ratio (the standard deviation in this study), the odds of having a healthy diet dropped by 24 percent. This was even after controlling for personal characteristics, like age, sex, income, education and other factors.

    “We are consuming way too many sugary foods like cookies, candies and pastries, and sugary drinks, like soda and fruit drinks,” Auchincloss said. “Nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults are obese and less than 20 percent attain recommendations for fruits and vegetables. Cheap prices of unhealthy foods relative to healthier foods may be contributing to obesity and low-quality diet.”

    To delve into price impacts, Kern and Auchincloss used cross-sectional data from 2,765 participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Participants were recruited from six urban areas in the U.S.: New York, Chicago, St. Paul, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Winston-Salem in North Carolina. Each participant’s diet data was linked to food prices at supermarkets in their neighborhood.

    Grocery prices were broken down into categories of “healthier” and “unhealthy.” Healthier foods included:

    • Dairy products — milk, yogurt and cottage cheese
    • Fruits and vegetables — frozen vegetables and orange juice, since fresh produce prices were not attainable

    Meanwhile, among the unhealthy foods were:

    • Soda
    • Sweets — chocolate candy and cookies
    • Salty snacks — potato chips

    The researchers used the Healthy Eating Index-2010 (HEI-2010), developed by the United States Department of Agriculture, to assess the study participants’ dietary quality.

    “A well-balanced diet of fruits, veggies, whole grains, low-fat milk and lean protein, with a minimal consumption of sodium and sugary foods and drinks — like soda and junk food — would receive an optimal score on the HEI-2010,” Kern said.

    The adverse impact of increasing healthy food prices compared to unhealthy food prices was particularly strong for people in the middle ranges of income/wealth in the study, and those with higher education.

    “We originally expected to find the largest impact among individuals in the lowest wealth/income group. However, given the price gap that we found, healthy food may be too expensive for the lowest socioeconomic status group even at its most affordable,” Kern said. “So the impact of the price ratio is weaker for this group.”

    A lot of research in public health has been devoted to changing food environments for the purpose of encouraging healthier eating. This is one of the few studies that takes a hard look at prices between foods, compares them, and tries to link them back to their dietary implications.

    Kern and Auchincloss believe more work needs to be done in this arena. In fact, they recently did work (published in Preventive Medicine) that found the price ratio of healthy-to-unhealthy food had a significant association with insulin resistance.

    “Prospective studies that examine interventions effecting food prices — such as taxes on soda and junk food or subsidies for fruits and vegetables — would be vital to understand how food prices influence purchasing decisions and subsequent diet quality,” Kern concluded. “Improving diet quality in the U.S., especially for the most vulnerable populations, is a large public health concern and future research could help address this issue.”


  8. Brain cells that control appetite identified for first time

    October 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Warwick press release:

    Dieting could be revolutionised, thanks to the ground-breaking discovery by the University of Warwick of the key brain cells which control our appetite.

    Professor Nicholas Dale in the School of Life Sciences has identified for the first time that tanycytes — cells found in part of the brain that controls energy levels — detect nutrients in food and tell the brain directly about the food we have eaten.

    According to the new research, tanycytes in the brain respond to amino acids found in foods, via the same receptors that sense the flavour of amino acids (“umami” taste), which are found in the taste buds of the tongue.

    Two amino acids that react most with tanycytes — and therefore are likely to make you feel fuller — are arginine and lysine.

    These amino acids are found in high concentration in foods such as pork shoulder, beef sirloin steak, chicken, mackerel, plums, apricots, avocadoes, lentils and almonds — so eating those foods will activate the tanycytes and make you feel less hungry quicker.

    The researchers made their discovery by adding concentrated amounts of arginine and lysine into brain cells, which were made fluorescent so that any microscopic reactions would be visible. They observed that within thirty seconds, the tanycytes detected and responded to the amino acids, releasing information to the part of the brain that controls appetite and body weight.

    They found that signals from amino acids are directly detected by the umami taste receptors by removing or blocking these receptors and observing that the amino acids no longer reacted with tanycytes.

    Nicholas Dale, who is Ted Pridgeon Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Warwick, commented:

    “Amino acid levels in blood and brain following a meal are a very important signal that imparts the sensation of feeling full. Finding that tanycytes, located at the centre of the brain region that controls body weight, directly sense amino acids has very significant implications for coming up with new ways to help people to control their body weight within healthy bounds.”

    This major discovery opens up new possibilities for creating more effective diets — and even future treatments to suppress one’s appetite by directly activating the brain’s tanycytes, bypassing food and the digestive system.

    Nearly two thirds of the UK population is overweight or obese. This excess weight elevates the risk of premature death and a range of illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke, which greatly reduce quality of life. A new understanding of how appetite functions could curb the growing obesity crisis.

    The research, ‘Amino Acid Sensing in Hypothalamic Tanycytes via Umami Taste Receptors’, will be published in Molecular Metabolism.

    It is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.


  9. Lutein, found in leafy greens, may counter cognitive aging

    August 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release:

    Spinach and kale are favorites of those looking to stay physically fit, but they also could keep consumers cognitively fit, according to a new study from University of Illinois researchers.

    The study, which included 60 adults aged 25 to 45, found that middle-aged participants with higher levels of lutein — a nutrient found in green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, as well as avocados and eggs — had neural responses that were more on par with younger individuals than with their peers. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

    “Now there’s an additional reason to eat nutrient-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, eggs and avocados,” said Naiman Khan, a professor of kinesiology and community health at Illinois. “We know these foods are related to other health benefits, but these data indicate that there may be cognitive benefits as well.”

    Most other studies have focused on older adults, after there has already been a period of decline. The Illinois researchers chose to focus on young to middle-aged adults to see whether there was a notable difference between those with higher and lower lutein levels.

    “As people get older, they experience typical decline. However, research has shown that this process can start earlier than expected. You can even start to see some differences in the 30s,” said Anne Walk, a postdoctoral scholar and first author of the paper. “We want to understand how diet impacts cognition throughout the lifespan. If lutein can protect against decline, we should encourage people to consume lutein-rich foods at a point in their lives when it has maximum benefit.”

    Lutein is a nutrient that the body can’t make on its own, so it must be acquired through diet. Lutein accumulates in brain tissues, but also accumulates in the eye, which allows researchers to measure levels without relying on invasive techniques.

    The Illinois researchers measured lutein in the study participants’ eyes by having participants look into a scope and respond to a flickering light. Then, using electrodes on the scalp, the researchers measured neural activity in the brain while the participants performed a task that tested attention.

    “The neuro-electrical signature of older participants with higher levels of lutein looked much more like their younger counterparts than their peers with less lutein,” Walk said. “Lutein appears to have some protective role, since the data suggest that those with more lutein were able to engage more cognitive resources to complete the task.”

    Next, Khan’s group is running intervention trials, aiming to understand how increased dietary consumption of lutein may increase lutein in the eye, and how closely the levels relate to changes in cognitive performance.

    “In this study we focused on attention, but we also would like to understand the effects of lutein on learning and memory. There’s a lot we are very curious about,” Khan said.


  10. Study examines how branding and prices influence children’s decisions about snack purchases

    August 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus press release:

    What determines how children decide to spend their cash on snacks? A new study shows that children’s experience with money and their liking of brands influenced purchase decisions — and that for some children, higher prices for unhealthy snacks might motivate healthier choices. The study is published in the journal Appetite.

    Besides parents, many actors such as schools, governments and food manufacturers influence and modify the consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor snack food among children through a multitude of venues such as parental guidance and restriction of such foods and snacks available to children at home, school programs (school lunch and vending machines), governmental mandates (taxation, nutrition education campaigns) and marketing messages.

    Researchers co-led by Professors Monika Hartmann from the University of Bonn and Sean Cash from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University studied the ways that children aged 8 to 11 use their own disposable income, predominantly an allowance provided by a parent, to purchase snack food on their own. In the study, they report that brand awareness was not necessarily aligned with preference of snack foods. Importantly, the extent of children’s experience with money influenced their purchase decisions, suggesting that higher prices for unhealthy snacks might be helpful in motivating at least those children that have experience with money to choose healthier options.

    The research took place in after-school programs in the Boston area with a sample of 116 children ages 8 to 11 years. The study consisted of a survey, two cognitive tests, and a discrete choice experiment (DCE). The participants were paid $2.00 each as compensation after completing the cognitive tests that they could then spend in the DCE part of the study.

    “We don’t know much about how kids spend their cash on snacks,” said corresponding author Sean Cash, Ph.D., economist and associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “It’s an understudied area. Currently, many children have their own disposable income, usually an allowance. They’re deciding how to spend that money on snacks, but we know very little about how they make those decisions.” This is especially true with respect to the extent to which children assess typical consumer tradeoffs regarding price and other food attributes.

    Cookies, apple slices, or yogurt

    The researchers presented a series of snack options to the children — cookies, apple slices, and tubes of yogurt. Each child was presented ten times with pairs of photographs of two snack items that differed by product type, price and brand. Each time they could select one of the two products or decide to make no choice.

    The child was told that at the end of the experiment, one choice would be drawn at random from the ten decisions the child made and the child would be obligated to purchase the chosen snack. The child had to pay the stated price of that choice, which ranged between $0.30 and $0.70, from the money previously earned in the study and they received the designated snack. This feature of the design made each choice more realistic for the kids. One group of snacks was from McDonald’s in order to test the importance of branding on children’s choices.

    Experience with money makes a difference

    Children made choices based primarily on food types (cookie, apple slices, yogurt). In the experiment, children most often chose the chocolate-chip cookies, with apple slices in second place. Other results were surprising.

    “What we found is that brand awareness was not a key factor in purchasing the snacks. What mattered more is a child’s like or dislike the brand,” said first author Monika Hartmann, Ph.D., who was a visiting scholar at the Friedman School while the study was being conducted. She is based at the Institute of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Bonn.

    The other important result was a distinct dichotomy with respect to how price affected the children’s purchase decision. Children who were used to receiving an allowance from their parents paid attention to the price, whereas those who had little experience handling money generally did not. This result supports research that suggests experience with cash is an important aspect of learning what prices mean.

    “Overall, the literature on children’s price responsiveness and brand awareness is scarce,” the authors wrote in their article. “The former is especially true for younger children (elementary school).” At the same time, they observed that children spend a considerable amount of money on snacks while childhood incidence of chronic dietary-related disease (type-2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, and obesity) is high and increasing around the world.

    The authors point out that this is a small study, regionally biased, and with limited choices within the experiment. They suggest further research to explore the efficacy of using price and presentation (e.g., packaging, branding) as additional tools in the fight against the growing incidence of chronic disease among children. Their work was supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG) with additional support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.