Psychology professor links food addiction with social connections

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - 5:54pm

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This article is part of an ongoing series profiling researchers at the University of Michigan.

For Ashley Gearhardt, University of Michigan assistant professor of Psychology and winner of the prestigious 2017 Henry Russel Award, her research on food addiction and eating disorders is deeply connected with the way humans interact with one another.

Gearhardt has a long history of involvement with the University Psychology Department, starting with her time as an undergraduate student majoring in psychology, and continuing when she entered the role of researcher and teacher at the University.

While pursuing her Ph.D. at Yale University in clinical psychology, Gearhardt researched alcohol use at Yale's psychology laboratory. She decided to study food addiction using a similar technique, leading her to create The Food and Addiction Science Treatment Lab. The FASTLab includes a real-life fast food restaurant simulation that was inspired by Gearhardt’s doctoral research.

“Investigating what factors contributed to excessive drinking in a cue-rich, naturalistic environment allowed us to do much more real world research,” Gearhardt said. “I wanted to do the same thing with food, so we built the fast food restaurant.”

About 71 percent of 20+ year olds in the United States were overweight or obese in 2014 according to the CDC, a chronic illness which could lead to death. Gearhardt said she believes national obesity must be addressed through gathering research about the nature of food addiction.

Food addiction and obesity are issues that have direct influences on college students. College students are a population at risk for weight gain, according to studies conducted by the National Institute of Health that found college freshmen are more likely to gain weight during their freshman year than the general population.

The purpose of her data analysis is to better understand how factors in the food environment, such as food product placements and food commercials, can encourage the onset of food addiction.

“The rates of obesity are going up all over the world and this is accompanied by changes in our food environment where foods high in fat, sugar and salt are now easily accessible, cheap, and heavily advertised,” she said.

FASTLab itself analyzes the effects of food addiction through various neurological and behavioral measures, such as brain imaging or observations from the field. Gearhardt said after she and her team visited and observed a number of fast food restaurants in the area, she developed a prototype for a typical fast food restaurant, including the color, menus, lighting and other aspects of those locations.

She also noted that media may impact the prevalence of obesity and fast food consumption among undergraduates, making research on marketing important, especially for college-aged students who are especially vulnerable to the messages conveyed on TV advertisements and in other forms of media.

“College-aged students and adolescents generally have a strong reward drive and the cognitive control mechanisms in the brain aren’t fully developed until you get older,” Gearhardt added.

Because of knowing this fact, Gearhardt said that food companies take advantage of youth by aggressively marketing to them, which poses harmful effects to college students as they don’t have parental oversight on their food choices.

“During this age period you are also more independent and you don't have as much parental oversight on what you eat,” Gearhardt said. “The food companies take advantage of this by aggressively marketing to this age group and almost all of these foods are very rewarding, but bad for your health in the long-term.”

All of this research, Gearhardt said the idea that people with obesity bring it upon themselves through consciously eating fast food while knowing of its risks is a misunderstanding of the broader societal problems in the media and in corporations that lead to the epidemic.

“The dominant narrative is that it is all just a matter of willpower, and while we need to all be responsible to try and make the best choices for our health, the current food environment makes it extremely hard to have a healthy relationship with food,” Gearhardt said.

The issue of fast food is also currently a topic of discussion on campus beyond Gearhardt's lab: The Sustainable Food Systems Initiative held its third annual symposium, “Fast Food for Thought” Tuesday, where 10 faculty members from different departments delivered a series of mini-lectures on food and agriculture.

Overall, Gearhardt said she hopes that FASTLab’s work will change how people view substance addiction and that, with more time and effort, there may be improvements in public health nationwide.

“Policy approaches that have worked with substance addictions, like restrictions on marketing and taxes, may be effective in re-shaping our environment to encourage a culture of health,” Gearhardt said. “I hope that our work reduces the stigma that individuals who have higher BMIs now face.”