Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Archive for January, 2012

Playful academics

Gotta love those academic squirrels. They’re easier to spot now that snow has melted again for a while. Almost like academic rabbits on Tampere campus, although these guys spend more time in trees, chasing each other playfully.

Squirrels

In reality, that chasing could of course be a bloody fight over whose turf Warren Hall is. And they probably need to work much harder to earn their living (and stay alive) than I do. But I can always imagine that they are happy, good-natured and care-free.

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Stress and obesity

On the way to workI like walking to work every day, especially because I can see and hear something like this on the way. The sound of flowing water is music to my ears. Even though I didn’t actually grow up next to a river or a lake, I’ve always found that being close to water soothes my nerves, and swimming in a lake is one of the most relaxing things for me.

I’m not the only one who feels that way: exercising outdoors actually is better to mental well-being than indoor activity. More importantly, contact with nature enhances overall well-being and relieves stress.

Why is this relevant in terms of healthy eating? Well, for one, stress and obesity have a strong link. Stressed people not only tend to have unhealthier lifestyles (such as too much snacking and junk food, too little exercise), but their metabolic system also seems to respond to stress by starting to conserve more energy. And sleep deprivation, which usually goes hand in hand with stress, messes things up even more: it distorts hormonal balance and makes you want to eat more. The poor body is in the state of alert and tries to prepare for potential dangers ahead.

Simply put, not sleeping enough makes you stupid, slow and fat.

The good news is that getting enough sleep and learning to manage stress in a healthy way returns the body to its normal state, making it easier to lose those extra pounds. Everyone can learn to relax, focus on the present moment, and take time to do things that they truly want to do. One example of this is mindful eating: eating slowly and savoring the tastes, appreciating food and also its production and preparation processes.

Technology can support people in the initial steps of learning. For example, mobile intervention programs with 2-4 weeks duration can teach simple relaxation and mindfulness techniques, and provide tracking tools that increase users’ awareness of their behavior and its consequences. Kinda like a low-cost personal coach in your pocket.

So, that’s what I would like to do. Develop such interventions that motivate and help people get started, establish some new habits, and find their own way towards their good life. I don’t think that these kinds of applications should even aim for long-term usage,  except for periodical check-ups to see if users have fallen off the track and need some encouragement to pull themselves together again.

Saving the world

While waiting to get my hands on an extremely interesting dataset, I’ve had some time to generate ideas and check if someone else has already implemented them. Most of the time that has been the case. Of course, the world is getting so old that there probably are no new ideas anymore lying around to be discovered. Reuse, recycle – that’s a virtue too.

Anyway, I happened to come across an article that struck a chord in me: “Save the world, prevent obesity” by Thomas N. Robinson. He talks about social and ideological movements with behavioral goals that can also help to prevent obesity. For instance, the growing awareness of the finity of natural resources has compelled many people to change their eating and physical activity behaviors. The main reason for this is not a desire to be healthier, it’s just a side effect of the changes that are driven by ideology.

For example, not all vegetarians are vegetarians just because they think that animals are too cute to slice and dice, or that animals taste bad. Some avoid eating meat because it takes about nine times more energy to produce a pound of (red) meat compared to vegetables, grain, beans, or seeds. Ethics and health (for intensively produced meat; the thought of digesting something that’s been stuffed with antibiotics and hormones isn’t particularly enjoyable) are just additional factors that make it easier to stick to the decision. Similarly, walking and using public transportation can be means to keep the carbon footprint small. Increase in physical activity is a nice side effect.

People aren’t motivated by their personal health until they’ve lost it, as we’ve known for a long time. Our values and other interests play a much bigger role in determining what we choose to do every day and how we prioritize things. After all, health is just your own responsibility, whereas pursuing other values usually have social and societal consequences. So, focus on saving the world (without going to extremes) and you save your health too as a by-product?

The cause that you are fighting for doesn’t necessarily have to be environmental sustainability or social justice. For instance, taking care of kids’ healthy eating is an extremely valuable goal, and that’s what these guys at Smarter Lunchrooms are doing. I think it’s great how they’re truly improving population health with simple, low-cost changes.

UPDATE August 2017: Five years later, it seems that Smarter Lunchrooms isn’t the silver bullet it was claimed to be, and the research about it hasn’t been reported objectively. See, for example, http://reason.com/blog/2017/08/29/junk-science-behind-smarter-lunchrooms.

First day at work

Survived the first day with the typical computer hassles and initial meetings. Well, I’m still not exactly sure what I will be doing here, but I have a slightly better idea now. At least I found out that I’m this multi-talented, versatile computer whiz who can solve any programming problem and has the answer to any technical question. Also, my skills with statistical analysis are outstanding. Well, I never got the memo about that 🙂 But I can very well try my best.

Now that I think of it, it’s encouraging. If people expect a lot from you, it means they believe in your abilities. Or at least they say so, which is really the same thing, since no one can read minds.

The team spirit seems to be great, although they don’t have coffee breaks the way we do. However, everyone gathers for lunch together in the lab. They said that they used to eat lunch at their desks. But what do you know? Then they heard the alarming results of some studies saying that such behavior leads to weight gain. It’s real nice that at least some people follow the practice-what-you-preach principle 🙂 They also pack healthy lunches: salads, carrots, grapes, and so on. My cafeteria-bought tofu scramble was all right, but very lacking in fruits and vegetables in comparison to others’ dishes.

Feels like a healthy place for body, mind and spirit. And based on the lab meeting, it seems that they are really making an impact on population-level. Of course, they are working very hard to achieve that, and changes don’t happen instantly. But makes me want to contribute and bring some of the stuff back home as well.

Cultural adjustment

Okay, time for something a bit more theoretical! I wanted to analyze cultural adjustment right in the beginning of this adventure, since I might need it later on when I hit the crisis phase.

According to Lysgaard’s U-curve model, adjustment to a new culture goes through four phases:

  • Honeymoon: loving the new culture, noticing only the positive sides, being curious and interested in everything.
  • Crisis: phase of frustration when reality hits hard, noticing only the negative sides, feelings of incompetence, blaming other people for communication difficulties and misunderstandings.
  • Recovery: realizing that the culture isn’t going to change, and you just have to accept it.
  • Adjustment: understanding the new culture and taking the best out of it, living here and now.

Of course, the stages do not apply to everyone, their length varies individually, and people can go back and forth between them. I guess I should be in the honeymoon phase currently, and perhaps I am, but too early to tell. Things have been going pretty well so far, but I’m certainly not absolutely in love with everything. I also experienced a short bout of frustration and homesickness on my very first day here, but that’s probably normal due to being jet-lagged and having so many things to take care of. Anyway, I hope that my extensive acceptance and commitment training helps in adjustment 😉

The U-curve hypothesis has also been expanded to a W-curve to cover the return to home. Basically, the phases are the same: first you love everything (food, family, friends, the way things work), but then you realize that things either have changed or have not changed, and you may have changed (or not) as well. You also notice how peculiar some customs in your own culture are.

W-curve

I wonder how large part of the troubles people have with adjustment is related to the time of the year? For instance, if you go abroad in September in the Northern Hemisphere, winter and darkness could make the crisis phase even worse. I hope that the increasing amount of light here will make things easier for me during the spring.

Some practical things that I’ve encountered so far include different locks, taps, doors, and lack of metric system. These are pretty easy to get accustomed to. A bit harder is to develop a natural reaction to how-are-yous. And I think that once I get started at work on Monday, I will face many things that are more under the surface and difficult to recognize at first. But it will be interesting, that’s for certain!

Landing

Got to Ithaca late on Wednesday evening safe and sound. The flights were pretty uneventful, save a couple of nice chats and some bumps while approaching Ithaca. The Newark-Ithaca plane was the smallest I’ve ever been in, the size of a small bus. I sat on the backrow reminiscing the old days of travelling to school by bus. The guy sitting next to me had the center seat and said he felt uncomfortably exposed.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the taxi from the airport was almost like public transportation, since the driver took four people in and dropped everyone off to their destinations. Saves time, money and environment. I was the last one to get off, so I got a nice tour of the dark and rainy city at the same time. Rain and green grass almost made me feel like I had gone backwards to Finnish autumn.

I live now on the East Hill’s Maplewood Park, university housing for graduate and professional students. My flatmates are three nice Chinese girls (or so they say – I have yet to meet the third one, apparently a super-busy PhD student). One of them calls me Cherry because my name was impossible to pronounce for her. Surprisingly, she’s the only one who’s had real trouble with it.

Caldwell Hall on 1/12/2012

Caldwell Hall

After settling in, unpacking and finishing off the last pieces of rye bread I had brought with me, I went to register to the university (that’s where the above picture is from). Luckily, the office people were on lunch break, so I had a chance to wander while waiting, and to discover the first waterfall. The only thing dampening the experience was the tall fence between onlookers and water. Judging by the sticker in the picture below, I guess someone else has been a bit irked by the fences which, as I later noticed, are abundant on bridges and cliffs.

Waterfall on campus

Then, had to take care of bodily needs. I felt I could find my way anywhere, since I was armed with the excellent information package I received when checking in to Maplewood. I strolled downtown, found by accident a small Greenstar Coop that sells organic foods and products, chatted with a salesperson there, and headed to a bigger Greenstar based on his advice. I’ll analyze the food options in more detail in a separate post, but suffice to say that I found something decent to eat.

Jet lag woke me up on 5 am on Friday morning (an hour later than on Thursday, slowly getting there!). Although it was raining when I came, it seems that the snow followed me from Finland. Many people cursed me because of that during the day. But anyway, now it looks like a proper winter.

Sunset at Maplewood

Sunset at Maplewood

Liftoff

Ithaca, New York. Named after the home island of Odysseus. Now my home for the next eleven months. I’ll be a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab, hopefully doing something worthwhile that will help people eat healthier, be satisfied with what they do and find some balance in their lives. The focus will be on eating behavior, but I’d love to approach it from mental and emotional viewpoints. And think of cost-effective ways to use technology to nudge and aid people to choose the healthier option.

I intend to blog about my activities and thoughts regularly. Presumably it’s not going to be just work, work, work all the time, since they say that “Ithaca is gorges”. During the ice age, glaciers carved numerous valleys and creeks in the Finger Lakes area, resulting in beautiful streams and waterfalls for us to admire in the present day. So, that means lots of time wandering outdoors and lots of pretty pictures!

Less than 24 hours to departure. I’m surely gonna miss Finland and all wonderful people here, but I hope the experience will be worth some homesickness.