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Teaching the 'Toxic Environment'

Oct 4, 2011
by Priscilla Proctor

Flagler professor focuses on the psychology of eating and better understanding the issues leading to America’s obesity problems

For Dr. Emily Splane, one meal’s leftovers were added proof that portion sizes are out of control and Americans are eating too much. A day after dining at a chain restaurant, she took a box from the refrigerator only to be shocked by how much there still was.

“My leftovers filled an entire bowl used to feed a family of four,” she said. “I was stunned to see that after eating until I was full, I still had enough food left to feed my entire family. The sodium in that pasta dish was probably three times the average level.”

For Splane, that example epitomized the ongoing struggle in America: a growing obesity problem, health issues caused by diet and ultimately how the simple and necessary act of eating has become deadly.

It’s a subject that Splane, associate professor of psychology at Flagler College, is passionate about, whether in her research or in teaching students in a course called “Psychology of Eating.” She is co-authoring a textbook by that same name with her graduate mentor, Dr. Neil Rowland, professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Florida.

Although the textbook will address the psychological, biological and sociocultural aspects of eating, Splane said her and Rowland’s motivation for writing was to address what experts in the field of eating refer to as a “toxic environment” — a term coined by Yale professor Kelly D. Brownell in “Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry.”

He used it to describe the collision between more sedentary lifestyles and modern, unhealthy food that is plentiful, accessible, relatively cheap, calorie dense and extremely tasty.

The result, she said, has led to the health crisis the country is facing.

“One-third of our country is obese, and two-thirds are either obese or overweight,” she said. “Only one-third of our country is of normal weight, and that statistic includes eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Ultimately, this means that a very small percentage of our country’s population is in a healthy weight range.”

Splane said if we hope to understand how our eating behaviors have changed, we must first understand just how much our environment has changed.

“Part of the problem our society is having is that food is so readily available almost anywhere you go,” she said. “Over 50 years ago, if you went to a gas station, you went to purchase gas, not to buy food. Now, people have started to associate food with places such as bookstores, car washes and even home-repair stores.”

This wasn’t always the case, as food wasn’t so plentiful. People used to have to hunt and gather, struggling to put enough food on their plates, and to survive. But as our environment changed, food became easier to come by.

Splane said other eating disorders have emerged in addition to obesity.

“Eating disorders are on the rise as a response to this environment — as a way of maneuvering through all of the chaos,” she said. “Of course there are also other factors contributing to these [eating] disorders, such as psychological issues, family issues, self-image issues and the pressure to be thin in today’s society. But again, we live in a country where food is so plentiful. You don’t see issues with obesity, bulimia or anorexia in Third World countries because there isn’t enough food for these disorders to exist.”

Splane said for the first time, something called “binge eating disorder” will be listed in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ” – a book used in the field of psychology to diagnose mental and other disorders.

“Binge eating disorder will almost inevitably lead to overweight and obesity issues,” she said. “With this condition, the person is eating way past their needs and numbing themselves with food. Emotionally, the binge eater is eating for comfort and filling some type of void.”

But while food often seems harmless, Splane said the truth is that of all the psychiatric disorders, eating disorders are the most deadly.

“With anorexia and bulimia, the risk of cardiac arrest is very high,” she said. “In addition, both disorders can cause heart failure or a stroke because fluid balance and electrolyte balance can be thrown off dramatically, leading to sudden death.”

Although the change in our environment plays a key role in the rise in obesity and other eating disorders, Splane said she is currently researching another key factor that could be contributing to the emergence: a link between mood and food.

“There’s some new supporting evidence that there is such a thing as a ‘food addiction,’ ” she said. “In performing experiments with rats, we are now finding that with food being so tasty, it’s over-stimulating the reward centers in the brain. It’s very similar to drug addiction in that the brain has become so overridden with pleasure molecules that cravings become virtually impossible to ignore.”

What’s the solution?

Splane thinks a lot of it starts with better education and, especially with children, everything from teaching nutrition in public schools to providing healthier lunches.

“We shouldn’t assume that our children will only eat foods like chicken nuggets and hotdogs rather than grilled chicken, fruit and veggies,” she said. “Humans lived and thrived for many many years before the creation of the chicken nugget.”

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