Behavior Change

Maybe I’m hungry. Maybe I’m not. Maybe I’ll eat Cheerios for breakfast. Maybe I won’t. I don’t quite fully grasp a tautology yet, but my vocabulary, along with my worldview, was greatly expanded yesterday while in conversation with a good friend as we exercised. The benefits of working out along side a mathematician.

Defined, a tautology is:

1) a needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word (i.e. “he’s a rookie in his first year).  (From Merriam-Webster Online).

2) an empty or vacuous statement composed of simpler statements in a fashion that makes it logically true whether the simpler statements are factually true or false; for example, the statement “Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow.” (From

I thought of tautologies as I went through my day yesterday and tried to make connections to food. I can spend most of my day debating whether or not I am hungry. Maybe I am truly just a tautological being.

This morning as I read the unhacked New York Times I came across Michael Moss’ article discussing some nudge marketing research taking place in grocery stores. The research is being conducted by Colin Payne, a protege of Brian Wansink, who as a post-doc completely fooled me into eating many M&Ms. “Nudge marketing calls for applying just the right amount of pressure to persuade: not too little, not too much,” states Moss. In stating that most marketing schemes that attempt to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables fail, the subtleness of persuasion may be a welcomed trick.

In one of Dr. Payne’s studies, yellow duct tape was used to divide grocery cart’s baskets in half. A flier told customers to place fruits and vegetables in the front half of their carts. Produce sales more than doubled, from $3.99 per person to $8.85. And better yet, overall sales stayed the same, indicating shoppers were buying less of other, hopefully less nutritious, foods.

In a second study mirrors were placed in the grocery carts. Imagine looking at yourself while deciding whether or not to buy the Oreos. A subtle reminder that the apples might be a better purchase today. At least until you hit the fitness center. Regularly. Preferably with a mathematician who can explain what tautologies are.

What does a tautology have to do with our behavior in a grocery store and why we eat? Probably nothing. But as I walk down the aisles of the local shopping venue battling myself to stay away from the ice cream while alternatively answering “yes” and “no” to the question of “Do I really need this in my freezer?” I can rest comfortably knowing that my battle is defined by logic.

I’m a beginner who is just getting started.

It’s the damn wrappers that always get me.  As if on cue.  Pun intended, hang with me for a moment.

In a study set to be published in the November issue of Appetite, authors Prinsen, et. al. craft three simple yet beautifully applicable experiments on cueing people to eat.  They manipulated the environment just a wee bit with interesting results.

In their first study they placed a bowl of individually wrapped chocolates (think Hershey Kisses) in the entryway of a lunchroom for a bakery. (Who knew bakeries had lunchrooms).  On one occasion they chocolates were there for the taking.  On the other occasion there was a second bowl with 20 of the wrappers already placed in it sitting next to the chocolates.  What happened?  When the bowl with the wrappers was present individual were more than 2 times as likely to take a chocolate on their way into the lunchroom.  The wrappers got them.

In study #2 the researchers recreated this experiment in a lab setting.  College students were brought into a lab under false pretenses and told to sit for 10 minutes prior to completing a cognitive task.  The chocolate bowl from the bakery was in the room as well.  72% of the students took chocolates when the wrappers were hanging around while on 45% did in their absence.  Wrappers are mean.  In statistical terms, students were more than 3 times as likely to take the chocolate when the wrappers told them to.

In the final study, students were again brought into the lab under false pretenses and told to sit and relax for ten minutes prior to the study.  Magazines were there for their perusal as were healthy and unhealthy snacks.  The students were told to eat something as the study was investigating blood sugar.  What and how much they ate was up to them.  In the trash bin next to them were placed wrappers from either the healthy or unhealthy snacks.  You can see where this is going.  One more twist, the magazines were either cooking and food magazines or fitness and health magazines .

Students who read the fitness and health magazines had higher intentions to eat more healthily than did those reading the cooking magazines.  More interestingly when empty wrappers of the healthy snack were in the trash bin 49% of students took the healthy snack while only 27% did when the unhealthy wrappers were present.  When wrappers of the unhealthy snack were in the bin, 73% of students opted for the unhealthy snack.  Damn wrappers.

So what does this mean and what can we do about it?  Other people influence our food choices, even when they are not around.  I feel this acutely when I walk around our kitchen on the hunt for satisfaction.  Even though my partner is not around her influence is.  There are no cookies, no chocolates, no snacks.  As frustrating as this can be in a moment of need, I consider myself lucky.  This is the key to the above studies, people and their choices influence our food choices even in their absence.  Just the mere presence of wrappers cues us to make a choice as we, in a subtle way, consider what those who came before chose.  By leaving the wrapper of a Snicker bar laying around I am cueing the next person to search for the same.

This leads me to Leave No Trace.  Try as she might my partner has not yet made me into an avid outdoorsman, but one thing I have learned is that when camping leave the campsite better off than you found it.  Thus, employ the principles of the Leave No Trace movement.  LNT for those in the know.  The seven principles of the LNT are as follows:

1.  Plan ahead and prepare.
2.  Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.
3.  Dispose of waste properly.
4.  Leave what you find.
5.  Minimize campfire impacts.
6.  Respect wildlife.
7.  Be considerate of other visitors.

One can easily see how these principles can influence us and our behavior when out in the wild backwoods of Minnesota and beyond.  However, I think they can be just as readily applied to eating and applied to the study mentioned above.  Let’s try:

1.  Plan ahead and prepare.  Be ready when you walk into that kitchen.  Mean wrappers are lurking everyone.  Promise yourself to ignore them.

2.  Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.  Ok, this one is hard.  Ha ha.  Plates do influence our consumption, so eat on small, durable one.  No paper plates, they’re almost as bad as wrappers.

3.  Dispose of waste properly.  Yes!  Properly is the key.  If you are going to eat unhealthily, for gosh sake hid the wrappers.  Bury them in the bottom of the trash bin.  Make a special trip to the garbage outside.  Tuck them under the car seat.  You know the tricks.  By doing so you won’t cue the next person to eat bad stuff.  Take that wrappers.

4.  Leave what you find.  Good point.  If you find bad food, leave it there.

5.  Minimize campfire impacts.  Another hard one, but make the decision dispose properly of those wrappers so as not to cause a wildfire when your partner comes home.

6.  Respect wildlife. i.e., those that follow.  Wildlife might be a very appropriate term for me when I am on the hunt in the kitchen.  Respect me and throw away the wrappers.  Don’t cue me, I don’t need the encouragement.

7.  Be considerate of other visitors.  Please!  I am a victim of my environment.  Please, please, please be kind and don’t let me know there are Hershey Kisses in the house.  If I see the wrapper I will spend the next 20 minutes looking for where the little morsels are hidden.

Ultimately LNT attempts to encourage us to minimize our impact on the environment and others.  Hopefully my LNT Kitchen Version will do the same.

Happy hiding.


I’ve decided I don’t like sugar. I’ll avoid it. Simple. No more sugar. It disgusts me. If only it were so. Sugar and I won’t talk to each other until the next time I see it. Then we’ll be friends again. Good friends. I like sugar. Too much.

Life would be much less complicated, and less weighty, if we could make a decision and stick with it. Imagine a world with no analysis. No questioning. No moment by moment arguments in our heads about whether or not to eat the cake. The cookies. The ice cream. Just flip the witch to no and move on. I cannot imagine. Ok, some analysis in the world is a good thing yet when it comes to food, especially sugar, it’s a full time job of analysis for me. And I get tired of it.

I wish I were a cockroach.

Research published last week in the journal Science details how cockroaches simply decided that glucose was killing them. Literally. Their ingestion of sugar wasn’t increasing obesity and causing diabetes rather it was leading them to poison bait traps. (The research was also highlighted in a New York Times article). Kind of like humans the more I think of it, just that the human trap is a donut, a cookie, and not a little black hexagon in the corner.

For quite some time cockroach bait traps have been laced with glucose in order to attract the hairy creatures. For awhile this method worked. “Give ’em sugar, it’ll kill ’em” was the motto of the pest management industry. Until it wasn’t. Turns out that cockroaches quickly figured out what was going on and rearranged their internal chemistry to serve them better. The bugs switched some mechanisms in their brains so that when they sensed glucose the bitter signal went off and drove them away from the trap, thus extending their crawly lives. Even better, they passed this trait onto their progeny. Mom, can I get some help here? Please, please, alter your chemistry and pass the ability onto me. Pretty please with glucose on top?

I wish I were a cockroach. That way I could flip a switch and avoid sugar. It’s killing me. In absence of lightning fast evolutionary change what if something else drove me away from sugar? Something a bit less time consuming, perhaps serving some other purpose as well? Hw about braces? Bait and switch. Give me straight teeth and encourage me to pass on the sugar? Sign me up.

Two weeks ago, after years of delay, I succumbed to braces. Albeit the clear kind, Invisalign. Never having had braces as a child, my teeth were slowly pushing together. “Wear them 23 hours a day and try not to eat with them in. Brush your teeth immediately after eating,” we’re the stern words from the orthodontist. Tell a 41 year old creature of habit that he has to brush his teeth after every nibble and guess what happens? He stops nibbling. In the last two weeks my coffee consumption has plummeted and every nibbling opportunity becomes a difficult debate. Not about whether the food will be worth it, always is, but rather, do I really want to take these things out of my mouth and brush my teeth. Again. And again.

Much like the cockroach I am sure I will adapt. I will find ways to work around this alteration in my mouth. I’ll get faster at taking them out. I’ll get better at not having people see me as I take them out. I won’t leave them on the dinner table for the kids to play with. I will adapt. Perhaps I will be led back to sugar, but let us hope that my children will know the pleasure of straight teeth.

The best and most fascinating studies for me are the simple ones.  I don’t want to know the genome of the brain, someone does, but not me.  I want to know why I eat and why I exercise.  More practical and applicable to my daily life than know the DNA of my left parietal lobe.  If indeed I have one of those.

Last week in Boston the annual Experimental Biology Conference took place.  This annual event gathers leaders from a diverse set of fields, including nutrition, to discuss the cutting edges of their disciplines.  I was thrilled that the study entitled, “Menu labels displaying amount of exercise needed to burn calories show benefits” was one that the New York Times chose to highlight earlier this week.  Out of all the amazing research presented, why we eat the way we do and ways to stop it grabbed the headlines.  Progress.

A small provision of the Affordable Health Care Act states that restaurant chains of more than 20 outlets must display the calorie content of their foods.  This is welcome news, however, how many of us know what that number means or even care? Calories in a McDonalds Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese?  750 big ones.  “Wow, that seems to be quite a few,” we think immediately before taking off a bite.  The issue with calorie counts and nutritional content is that the information is not salient to us, it is not meaningful.  Most know that high calories may want to be avoided, but even that is relative.  Enter the present study.

Researchers at Texas Christian University tracked what people ordered and what they actually consumed as a result of ordering from three different menu options.  The food items listed on the menus were identical with one exception:  one menu simply listed the food, another listed calories next to the food, and the third listed how long one would have to briskly walk if they ordered and consumed each food.  Now we’re talking.  Threaten people with exercise and watch them change their behavior.

When ordering from menus that listed how much brisk walking would be needed to burn off the consumed calories individuals ordered and ate significantly less calories when compared to the other two conditions.  There was no difference in calories ordered or consumed when comparing menus with and without calorie counts.

This isn’t to say that menus with calories listed are meaningless.  To some this information is useful, to others it is simply a moment for pause.  However, exercise is salient, people can relate to walking.  When you see a sirloin steak you want and next to it reads “You will have to walk briskly for 60 minutes” in order to burn those consumed calories behavior seems to change.

Take home message:  if we want to get people to change their behavior around food and exercise, the information we share with them must be relevant.  This information cannot be abstract, like calorie counts.  That Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese?  Go walk for two hours and get back to me.

How long will did I have to walk after I consumed last weekend’s birthday desserts?  Way too long.  And that means something to me.

How would you respond if I asked, “Why do you exercise?”  Would you pause and ponder?  Would you say “because it feels good”?  Or would it be something along the lines of “I exercise to extend my life”?  Most of the responses I have been given over the years fall into two general categories, those of “Because I am training for something” and “I want to lose weight.”  Rarely do people respond that they exercise to extend their lives.  This may be a thought in the back of their minds, especially if, for example, a family member has been diagnosed with heart disease and their is a strong family history of this condition.

This thought of heard disease lurks in the back of my mind as both maternal grandparents died due to heart disease and my mother has a few heart issues over the years.  I also think about the Alzheimer’s my father battles.  Will my exercise help stave off both?  In the far reaches of my mind, I hope so.  However, if I am honest with myself, this is not what drives me to exercise.  My drive comes from a lifelong battle with weight.  This battle is what most likely led me to my profession and my interest in why we eat.  Yet more on the surface, this battle is the force behind my exercise patterns.  Exercise does make me feel good, I get down without it.  I like to practice what I preach and it is easier to encourage others when you actively take part.

These were my thoughts as I saw the question posed to Gretchen Reynolds this week in the New York Times:  If I do 30 minutes of cardio exercise six days a week, would increasing it to 60 minutes a day be twice as good for me?  Her response intrigued me.  The answer all depends on the definition of “good.”

In her response, Ms. Reynolds, whom I enjoy reading and have high respect for, focused on lifespan as the definition of good.  Studies are cited that state those exercising moderately live just as long as those who exercise obsessively.  Bump your workout from 15 minutes a day to 30 minutes a day and you only see a 4% increase in lifespan.  So it would seem doubling your workout time doesn’t give you much bang for you buck.

However, is there another way to look at it?  Double your workout time from 30 to 60 minutes and you will burn more calories, perhaps leading to more meaningful weight loss provided you don’t eat more (we will present work out of our lab next month at the American College of Sports Medicine Meeting that shows when people exercise vigorously, they overestimate their calorie expenditure by nearly 20%, thus the idea of eating too much when you exercise more).  You’ll also simply move more and sit less.  And we know how important moving, even just standing, is.

So it all depends on the definition of “good.”  Why do I exercise?  So I can eat more and maintain an edge in my battle with weight.  Why do most people exercise?  Weight related responses reign supreme.  Perhaps by taking an active role in our health and moving as much as we can, we gain something more that immeasurable increases in lifespan.

Perhaps it’s my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents fault that at times I am not motivated to exercise.  Perhaps it is my ancestor’s gift that I battle that amotivation and continue to exercise.  Why some people choose to be active and others choose not be is the never-ending question in my discipline.  One can be given a fantastic exercise program to follow, can even hire someone to guide you through it.  Yet, if we are unmotivated and choose not to do it, the program is no good.

Gretchen Reynolds, early this week in the New York Times, highlighted a fun study on motivation and exercise.  Albeit it rats a telling story is told.  Rats were put in a cage with a wheel and their activity was tracked for one week.  The most active females and males were bred together, as were the most inactive varieties.  This was repeated through ten generations.  The end product were a set of rats that loved to exercise and a set that loved to sit.  The exercising rats ran ten times as much as the couch potatoes.

Then the dissection began.

Surprisingly, the two groups of rats did not differ much in body composition (muscle and fat) and the lazy rats were only a touch heavier.  The differences lay in the genes:

“The scientists compared the activity of thousands of genes in a specific portion of the brain that controls reward behavior, or the motivation to do things because they’re enjoyable.  They found dozens of genes that differed between the two groups.  The rats’ decision to run or not to run, in other words, was being driven, at least in part, by the genetics of motivation.”

Wow.  Thanks great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandpa, you gave me the will to succeed.  Or at least the will to fight.

Those that came before us impact us.  In a powerful way.  We know this.  This can be a blessing and a curse.  We shouldn’t look backwards and say it’s their fault we don’t exercise, although tempting.  Rather, in our unmotivated moments, we should challenge them and say, “Here we go!”

The genetics of motivation.  Fascinating stuff.

Happy Friday.


Yesterday proved challenging indeed. The food stared, I ignored. The food screamed, I ignored. The food throw a tantrum, I ate. For the most part I was successful in meeting my challenge of not overeating during my meeting, however, there were moments. In laying out my challenge here yesterday I definitely felt the pressure of not eating so as to avoid having to take a picture and be held accountable. Maybe that is what I should do each day: take pictures of all food consumed. Ignoring the food was a challenge as it literally talks to me. At times it was hard to focus and when others grabbed a snack I wanted to and sometimes did. The power of the environment. So, as promised here is my day in photos (with apologies to size and formatting):

Walking into the conference room I had to giggle, here is the sign on the door:


Have to love a group of exercise professionals that ignore rules from the get go.

Onward, here is the table as it started its day:


Noting terribly daunting other than the fact it was simply there.

Onto snack #1, where one of the meeting organizers passed out chocolate covered espresso beans:


A couple of cups of nuts. Come on, it’s a strength and conditioning meeting, I had to keep up with my colleagues on the protein front:



Went for a higher healthiness score, banana:


This brought me to noon, and the table went on steroids. Panera was brought in and laid out before us. Sandwiches, salads, and cookies, galore. I found myself think big, “I’ve been pretty good all morning, therefore I can splurge at lunch. Need to figure out how to combat the thoughts of being good = later binge:


And my lunch:


With an extra cook


The afternoon proved successful with only an apple creeping in to get me. Easy to rationalize that one:


So there you have it, my meeting food in pictures. The day proved interesting as I felt pretty good about my choices (save the extra cookie at lunch), yet I did find the conversations in my head instructive. By suggesting to myself I met the challenge of ignoring most of the food, I found myself being consumed by thoughts of my rewards. Pun intended.

Happy Saturday. Ten more hours of staring at the table for me.


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