Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

ACR Conference

The last long trip on this continent this year: Association for Consumer Research North American conference. It was held this year in Vancouver, BC, October 4-7. Like Vancouver, the conference was very international, with more than 1000 participants and a large number of them outside North America. In terms of fields that were represented, consumer behavior and marketing seemed to be the most common. Or perhaps they were the fields where people tend to use clear labels on themselves. “Don’t put yourself in a box – research is research and it’s all interesting.”

Weather couldn’t have been more perfect.

Although the focus was consumer behavior, there was a solid awareness about the usefulness of technology as a tool and a source of data. In particular, Jeff Inman emphasized in his presidential speech how important mobile consumer research already is and will be in the near future. Doing research with mobile devices makes it possible to gather information real-time and about topics that earlier were only possible to study through surveys or observations. Data about everyday, moment-to-moment behaviors are now much more accessible.

Highlights from Presentations

I was impressed by the consistent high quality of the presentations – most of the sessions were really interesting and engaging. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, since the acceptance rate for presentations was around 20%. I had a poster about improving adherence in online habit change interventions. It attracted a reasonable amount of attention, but I think most people were a bit weary after the long day, since the poster session was held Friday evening.

Anyways, highlights from some of the most interesting presentations:

Food and nutrition

  • Becoming a Mindful Eater: Improving Food Choices through Emotional Ability Training (Jonathan Hasford, University of Kentucky). The researchers demonstrated that emotional abilities can be trained, and increases in emotional intelligence decrease calorie intake in comparison to more traditional nutrition training group. Results were maintained after three months. I found this really interesting and could see similarities to the ACT framework, where mindfulness training increases emotional awareness and helps a person to recognize the influence of emotions and external cues on their eating behavior (and other behaviors as well). Perhaps we could use emotional intelligence scale in some of our studies?
  • When Soft Drink Taxes Don’t Work: A Comparative Study (Andrew Hanks, Cornell). Drew and others from Food & Brand Lab found that putting a tax on soft drinks has unintended consequences: the effects of soda purchases are insignificant, and some shoppers actually switch to buying more beer and fruit juices, increasing the overall calories they purchase (although maybe they get a little bit more nutrients in?). Hence, only taxing soda probably isn’t the best approach in trying to decrease the fluid calories purchased.
  • Increasing Serving Size Increases Amount Consumed (Chris Dubelaar, Bond University, Australia). This study tested whether people would eat more than their previous maximum consumption, if the serving size increased still. They measured the maximum consumption of pasta based on a sample (over one pound) and then doubled the serving size from that for the participants of the study. They found that people still ate about 22% more than the earlier maximum amount had been. This unfortunate finding means that people try to eat at least half of the serving, no matter how big the serving is.
  • Taming Temptations: Targeting Self-Control Increases Healthy Food Behaviors (Janet Schwartz, Tulane University, USA). Simple prompts such as asking people if they want to downsize their portion is more effective than nutrition or calorie labeling, and doesn’t leave downsizers feeling deprived or hungry. Also, a study about pre-commitment done with Discovery Health Soutch Africa found that asking people to pre-commit to healthy purchases and receive a discount if they really purchased healthily really increased the share of healthy purchases.

Physical activity

  • Exercising to the lowest common denominator (Leslie John, Harvard). This study looked into how peer behavior influences our own behavior. They gave employees of a company walkstations (sort of treadmills that can be used while working) and assigned them into one of three conditions: solo (information of only own performance), duo (information of one other’s performance), and quad (information of three others’ performance). Not surprisingly, performance declined in all three groups over time. But what was perhaps surprising is that decline was slowest in solo group. In other words, people who saw how others in their group behaved sank down to the level of the lowest performer. At least in this context, it would be better to compare just against own behavior (maintain the level of walkstation use) than let people know that others aren’t doing as much.

Social influences

  • Blowing Out Candles to Make Ours Burn Brighter (Cait Lamberton, Uni. Pittsburgh). The findings of this research could be seen to be a bit depressing: basically, we all blow out other people’s candles, that is, try to sabotage others’ achievements. But our level of self-esteem has an effect on whether the sabotage is covert or overt. People with high self-esteem are more sensitive to ego threats, and therefore resort to covert harming (they don’t want other people to know that they’re envious). People with low self-esteem, in contrast, lack resources to cope and are more prone to overt harming and “sour grapes” effect (“I wouldn’t have wanted it anyway”).
  • Facebook Therapy? (Eva Buechel, Uni. Miami). Emotionally unstable individuals have a need to share emotional experiences, but they often lack the close social network that could give support. They have a high need to share, but low social skills. The researchers did a series of studies on Facebook and found that Facebook status updates can work as an emotion regulation strategy for emotionally unstable people. That is, they can release their emotions on Facebook and it helps in affect regulation, even without actual responses. Anticipation of social support may be enough for benefits.

Even though I was a captivated member of the audience at the presentations about experimental research, I think that I gathered most food for thought from the doctoral consortium and the sessions about methodology and broader issues in the field. Summarizing some of these things in the rest of the post.

Building Bridges – Interdisciplinary Research

Next year’s ACR president Linda Price (Uni. Arizona) pointed out that ACR community is multidisciplinary, but not interdisciplinary enough: people still operate inside their own boxes and don’t reach out to other fields as much as would be beneficial. Akshay Rao from University of Minnesota continued on the same topic with this equation:

Research = Curiosity = Opposite of ignorance

When research is driven by curiosity, it will almost inevitably have to become interdisciplinary. However, it is also scary to step outside the box. Ethnographic studies have shown that increased diversity threatens community. Moreover, interdisciplinary work is challenging to get published, because unidisciplinary journals and reviewers often don’t understand other disciplines.

Do we want to let fear or curiosity to direct the paths our research takes? There is strength in working together. Think about sustainability, poverty, obesity, or communicable diseases. They affect everyone around the globe and need many curious brains and lively hands to work on them. The trick is to find people who are good at different things and use the pool of skills to do something extraordinary.

Besides, the things that people outside academia are interested in usually stem from interdisciplinary research. The novel, non-obvious, and useful findings are based on interest in phenomena, not the method. Keep the focus of the study on behavior and use all tools available.

Not to forget that making it personal, that is, focusing on issues that really matter to you, helps to maintain interest and stay invested. That’s why I veer towards projects which deal with mental well-being, stress management, emotional eating or such. Just need to remember that creativity is killed by stress.


Opening plenary was dedicated to discussion about integrity in research. Apparently, last year some well-known researchers in the field were discovered to have fabricated their results by cherry-picking data. The plenarists pointed out several problematic issues in the nature of academia, including tenure process that pushes for publishing as much as possible, the urge to write a good story from muddy data, and the desire to make broad generalizations from a selected and biased sample (most often, undergrads). Job security, money, and fame can sometimes seem tempting enough to justify some shortcuts and white lies, right? Nope.

As Jeff Inman, the current president of ACR, stated: the game is not publishing. The game is research, and publishing is the outcome. Research should be done on important topics, driven by desire to understand what’s happening and why, and to explain it to others as clearly as possible.

Telling Stories

Writing a good scientific paper is like telling a good story. It needs to have a clear focus, plot structure, and engaging narrative. No one wants to read a story which doesn’t have consistent characters (your constructs and variables), is full of incoherent extra side plots, and characters have different names in different chapters. Ultimately, theories are just stories as well.

I think that this is one of the many reasons why it’s important to read outside one’s own field and also to read fiction: to maintain good writing skills and the feeling what a good and captivating story is.

Scientific papers are obviously not the only place where narrative power can be important in research. Health promotion initiatives can also engage the audience more strongly through narratives. Sometimes this means using testimonials, example characters and scenarios, and so on to stress the importance of healthy behaviors. Furthermore, I think that metaphors in ACT are a great example of how narratives are used to illustrate, educate and increase understanding. Stories can transport the reader/listener so that the experience is powerful, lasting, and attitude-changing.

Using Field Data

Several people, including Jonah Berger from University of Pennsylvania, said that most of the interesting ideas are usually found in everyday life. Observing, looking for intriguing data sources, getting ideas from personal interests and hobbies, and so on. Good research often has field data in addition to lab studies. People in the real world don’t really care about changes on scales (what does it mean that the scores on Bergen Burnout Index shifted from 9.7 to 6.8 in the treatment group, for example?), they care about actual behavioral changes (reduced absenteeism, for example). Field study is usually the most interesting part (especially for general audience).

Gathering field data can feel like a daunting task, but it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that one dataset can provide valuable insights from several different angles. The greatest value of field data is that this actually happened in the real world.

Transformative Consumer Research

Transformative Consumer Research (TCR) is a sub-community of ACR. Their vision is to do meaningful research so that findings have clear, relevant, practical implications. Transformative consumer research is characterized by focus on behavior, concentration on vulnerable groups, and aim to make an impact.

This is how they summarize it:

“[TCR] focuses on significant social problems and challenges presented by modern consumer society. It includes research on materialism, poverty, subsistence markets, sustainability, at-risk consumers, the role of technology, and health and nutrition, among others. Transformative consumer researchers are united in their belief that academic researchers have a duty to use their knowledge and expertise to develop research and programs aimed at increasing societal welfare.”

Hits the spot, right? “This is what I want to do”, methinks.

Dilip Soman (University of Toronto) mentioned that it is curious how governments have all sorts of economic advisors, but no behavioral advisors. He then listed three reasons why we often shy away from attempting to do research that is relevant to real-world issues:

  • Problems are overwhelmingly big. Solution: decompose them to small, testable problems.
  • Difficult to make a theoretical contribution. Solution: demonstrate in the field (ecological validity), then bring back to lab to explain the psychological process and advance theory.
  • Hard to get data. One solution: start getting the word of your research out by blogging, talking to people, giving talks at events outside academia. Convenience samples could also be expanded by respondent-driven recruitment.

Next TCR conference is May 24-25, 2013 (in Lille, France). Closer to home for us Europeans, could be a good place to go!

Some Ideas for Research

When I left the conference my brain was full of half-baked ideas and thoughts that still aren’t very well formulated. I’ll write them out here, at least that way they can potentially spark thoughts in smarter people’s brains.

One thing that I’ve been wondering for a long time is the sometimes startling absence of healthy food options at conferences which deal with health at least in some ways. At ACR, I was able to find some fruit in the morning of the first day, but afternoon coffee breaks were dominated by cookies and cupcakes.

Healthy snacks?

Has anyone done a study about conference committees and how they end up deciding the menus? For example, one presentation was about people choosing food for someone else and feelings evoked by the choice, if the chooser is slender and the other person is heavier. Perhaps something like this is happening at committees as well – people don’t want to deny sweet treats from others. Or they just want to make people feel good about being treated with delicious stuff, which will make them more likely to return next year.

Social influences and networks are also immensely interesting. I’ve been following an excellent blog called Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss for some time now. I think it’s great not only because it’s very sharply written and draws a lot from research, but also because it reveals a lot about cultural differences in how weight and beauty are perceived. For a white Finnish girl, some of the things that the blogger Erika writes about I would never have even thought of without her blog. The thing is, I can’t remember how I originally found the blog. And that is intriguing in itself: how do people find and start following blogs about health and well-being? What are the demographics, and how does the word about blogs spread?

Online communities could be a rich source of data about user-generated content. For instance, what kinds of challenges people post in SparkPeople?

And finally, I remember reading about a guy who decided to start taking pictures of himself every day. It turned out to become a journey to self-discovery and self-actualization. Could we have a study about this, to see if this kind of “self-tracking” would have a positive influence on well-being?


Research in Spotlight

NIH spotlight of Brian, shot at the Science & Engineering Festival that we were at in Washington DC in April. Good stuff.

I recently read about the failure of physical activity interventions for children. It seems that well-intentioned and well-designed interventions succeed in increasing children’s daily physical activity by a meager five minutes – but this increase doesn’t last past the first few weeks. Clearly, we’re missing something.

Divide between exercise and everyday physical activity has become stark. People often wonder about my willingness to walk distances that are more than a mile. Sometimes, these are the same people who go for ten-mile runs every other day. I need both in order to feel good. I spend so much time in front of a computer that whenever there’s a chance to take a few extra steps, I’ll jump for it. Sometimes literally.

Are we missing the base of the pyramid?

The problem is that the Western environment and lifestyle has become extremely aversive towards everyday physical activity. Hotels are one of the clearest examples: I’ve noticed that the fancier the hotel, the more likely it is that it’s impossible to take the stairs. The doors are locked, only to be used in case of an emergency. What if my emergency is the urge to run up the stairs? Another thing are the lengthening commutes that even kids are having nowadays. The list goes on.

Ultimately, the choice architectures around us don’t favor walking or biking. Some cities have recognised this and really started trying to change things: sidewalks, bike lanes, bikeshare programs, free or extremely cheap public transportation.

Attitudes also need to change. This is from the NY Times article:

“Kids naturally love to run around and play,” Dr. Booth said. “But they’re just not doing it as much now. And we don’t know why. So what we really need to understand is, what’s happening to our kids that makes them quit wanting to play?”

Well, duh. They grow, start to think they they need to become adults, all serious and collected. Grown-ups don’t sprint, skip, wrestle, piggyback each other, do somersaults or anything that causes them to sweat and become out of breath, unless they are in the strictly specified context of exercise. That’s just plain silly. Fortunately there are exceptions, people who are self-confident and energetic enough to be active themselves, no matter what the context is. They’re the proper role models!

How to change choice architectures and role models? What kind of a role can technology play? I’ve started to think that its strength is in the ability to connect people, to help them become aware of other ideas and movements in real-time. The question that’s often asked, for a good reason, in my field is: “Will people who need wellness technologies use them?” The answer tends to be “couldn’t care less”.

So if they don’t care, do they really NEED the technologies, or are we just trying to create the need? The question should rather be formed in the following way: “What do people need and how can technology serve that need?” And that’s why it would be so extremely important to actually go to the people and figure out what their real needs and desires are.


Troublesome news about school lunches that follow the new nutritional guidelines in the US:

  • Kids throw fruit and vegetables away and buy junk from vending machines instead. They claim that they go hungry with new school lunches, even though calorie content is about the same.
  • Kids who qualify for free school lunches sometimes don’t take it at all because they want to avoid social stigma. Well-off kids take pictures of them and post them on Facebook, ridiculing their economic status. As a result, many kids go hungry and don’t get the nutrients they need.

I do hope that the first problem is solved with a little bit of time. Seems to be a full-blown manifestation of psychological reactance and initial rebellion. Also, it would be great to get rid of those vending machines at schools. Choice architectures – if it’s available and accessible, it will be eaten. Smarter Lunchrooms stuff needs to be used to make those vegetables seem less “gross”.

But it is sad to know that tons of vegetables and fruit are going to waste. Darned cool kids and their poisoned taste buds.

The second problem, technology-mediated social ostracism, is even more heartbreaking. Having been a target for ostracism in my middle school days, I feel lucky to have survived my teenage years before social media. It’s bad enough to hear derisive comments about one’s value as a person during school hours, but I imagine it must be thousand times worse to see those comments posted online with pictures that may or may not be photoshopped. Even if you have a tough skin, it is quite a lot to handle. Especially if there is really nothing you can do about the circumstances.

Obviously it’s not social media that’s to blame. It’s just a tool that can be used for good or bad. The troubling part is the phenomenon of bullying in itself. I feel that children should learn to understand and respect where food really comes from, and learn to understand and respect their fellow human beings as well. All horrid deeds in human history have started with someone deciding that they are better than other people.

In Finland, it’s free lunch for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. It doesn’t solve all problems, but at least it makes people more equal.

Ride for Life

We did it! Hundred miles around serene Cayuga lake to raise awareness of AIDS and to raise funds for Southern Tier AIDS Program for continued prevention and support services. It was a wonderful ride.

I woke up at five on Saturday morning and zipped down Buffalo Street after a quick breakfast, my little LEDs shining in the dark and scaring a skunk who was puttering around minding its own business. Arrived to Stewart Park to wait for the ride to begin as the sky lightened, met friends with whom I’d be sharing the road. Watched more than 350 riders gather together. Before we were sent off, we were touchingly reminded of the purpose of the AIDS Ride for Life – the stories yet to be told, the lives yet to be saved, and the dreams yet to be realized.

Can’t quite describe the feelings I had at that moment. I think it was a mixture of sadness, joy and anticipation. I thought of Freddie Mercury and the songs he still kept on recording just days before his death. I thought of the book “Wisdom of Whores” I read last year, the theoretical ease and the practical difficulties of preventing HIV infections. I looked at people around me and I was glad to be one of them. They all cared.

Preparing for the ride

And then we started riding and I came back to the present moment and just enjoyed the cool morning air and the determined pedaling. I had tested the waters one week earlier on a 57-mile ride to Aurora and back, so I knew that the first hills would be steep and long, but not too bad. Pretty soon (well, after 1,5 hours) we were at King Ferry Winery, the first pit stop at 18-mile mark. Munched some protein-filled oatmeal with nuts and pumpkin seeds, filled my water bottle, chatted with friends, and soon we took off again.

Weather was absolutely perfect, half-cloudy, not too hot, not too cold. We sped past the second pit stop thinking that we would easily make it to the opposite end of the lake before having to stop. This theory would have held if I hadn’t started losing air from my backtire around 40-mile mark. It wasn’t a flat, but definitely a little bit of leakage was happening. Since it was less than ten miles to Verdi Signs pit stop, I wanted just to go as far as I could, and change the tube there with proper tools. (I had a spare tube and tire levers with me, but I had forgotten a wrench! My bike’s old-fashioned, it has real bolts to keep the tires on.) Well, had to stop to pump more air in a couple of times, but arrived to Verdi Signs without losing too much time on the way. And besides, it’s a ride, not a race.

Thanks to the repair crew, I soon had a new tube in and full of air. We continued through a lovely drumlin area and reached Seneca Falls after noon, having ridden 60 miles. I wasn’t feeling too tired, but definitely hungry. Enjoyed a good lunch with the team and got back on the bikes.

The 40 miles that we had left went by surprisingly fast. The wind that had been against us during the first half of the journey was now on our side (or, behind our backs). What’s more, the lovely volunteers had written and drawn encouraging messages on the road shoulder. We stopped once to fill our bottles and grab a handful of grapes before the last leg. Having eaten tons during the day, I actually felt quite energetic as we approached Ithaca. Crossing the finish line at Cass Park was awesome: a big crowd of people was there waving, cheering and applauding. Then we just relaxed and basked in the afternoon sun. After five we gathered for the victory ride through downtown to Stewart Park, where we had a nice dinner and celebrated the accomplishments.

Victory Ride!

The ride raised over $216,000. It’s an incredible sum and will go to a great cause. What’s more, the effect on raising AIDS awareness and strengthening people’s self-confidence goes even longer way. For me, 80 miles was the longest distance I’ve biked before this. It was wonderful to see that I could do it, and I didn’t even feel sore afterwards! And it was wonderful to see other people feel the same awe about themselves. Plus all the wonderful volunteers who took care of feeding and hydrating us and keeping us safe and smiling.

One girl actually rode a penny-farthing for 50 miles. Now, that’s a really amazing achievement!

Team Felicia – thanks everyone, you are wicked awesome!

The AIDS Ride is not a unique fundraising effort here, although it’s perhaps the largest event in terms of duration and organizing. There’s something going on almost every weekend. For example, in August, women swam one mile across Cayuga Lake to raise funds for hospice care. Tomorrow, there’s a Food Justice Summit walkathon (5 miles) with the aim to build a sustainable food system. Community is activated to do good voluntarily, and have fun and be physically active at the same time.

We have similar things in Finland too, but somehow I’ve never managed to hear of them, and I think they tend to be smaller scale. For example, there was a “Kävele naiselle ammatti” (“walk an occupation for a woman”) event in Tampere two weeks ago. Perhaps Pirkan Kierros could be re-focused as a charity event? (Could be that some of the money is already being donated somewhere, but if that’s the case, they’re not really advertising it.) Let me know which events you know of!

So now I’m listening to Queen’s last album, Made in Heaven, and thinking how people in welfare nations are more likely to engage in voluntary work, because they are safe and secure and can spare their time and resources on helping others. When a mind is not occupied with basic survival, it can reach out to the world and respect every life as valuable.

This year has been one hell of a ride so far. Ups and downs, but much more ups than downs. It’s a beautiful world that we have, and beautiful people in it. Let’s strive to make it even better.

SNEB 2012

I attended the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior Annual Conference in Washington DC July 13-17. This is a brief summary about the conference in general and the main themes that stuck with me, even two months after the conference. The summary of the conference proceedings and many of the presentations are available here.

The garden behind the hotel was a place for quiet, relaxing moments.

As a sidenote: it’s somewhat embarrassing how it’s taken me ages to get this done. Reuniting with my significant other and having a summer vacation right after the conference was wonderful, but it caused this to get stuck midway in the priority pile. Still, better late than never.


Almost 600 people participated in the conference this year, making the attendance the highest in the past ten years. I might be biased, but I’m inclined to think that one of the reasons was the current president, no other than Brian Wansink. He has the skill to breathe energy and enthusiasm into anything he touches. And based on the talks I had with various conference attendees, the research that Food & Brand Lab does is generally considered not only quirky, but very interesting, original and practically useful as well.

Interest in practical usefulness was apparent in the audience demographics: in addition to researchers, a lot of dieticians, cooperative extension people, and health promotion program planners were present. Exhibition booths included potato and wheat promoters, developers of engaging educational materials, cancer researchers and so on.

Exposing kids to oranges and cantaloupes!

All in all, everyone’s focus was on practical and actionable things in nutrition education and behavior change. The overall theme of the conference was synergy, which encouraged people to find ways to collaborate and benefit from each other’s expertise. I think that the most inspiring thing for me was just talking with all sorts of people and feeling the empathy, enthusiasm, and the drive to learn and to make real changes. Feeling that others genuinely cared about people’s well-being and wanted to make a difference.

Community partnerships

Building partnerships was the focus of several sessions and talks. Not only partnerships between researchers and health professionals, but engaging the entire community: universities, schools, community organizations; researchers, students, activists, educators, parents, farmers, daycare centers, chefs, churches… the list goes on. Two centers, one from west and one from east coast, presented their visions and modes of operation.

Both centers started by collecting the resources that were already available and expanded from that. They develop, implement, and evaluate health promoting services, using a lot of students to do the practical work. This is great for everyone: students get practical experience and a taste for civic engagement, researchers are able to focus on coordinating and evaluating, and community members are approached from many directions.

I participated in an exercise to create a network of partners in local community to achieve the objective of a given project. We were encouraged to think outside the box to identify organizations and companies that could be involved, such as grocery stores, environmental activists and so on.

It would be really great to get students more involved in Finland as well, to create actual health promotion projects. Small-scale, of course (at least at first), but it would have been awesome to do something real instead of just writing essays when I was a student.

Simple and cheap

One of the recurring themes was the need for simple and cheap tools to promote healthy choices, as well as the need for healthy choices themselves to be simple and cheap. The first person to talk about this was Sam Kass, the White House chef and advisor in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, which has the goal to reverse childhood obesity. One of the aims is to give parents easy, understandable tools that help them make healthy choices for their kids.

Another example that stuck in my mind was Leon T. Andrews’ “Healthy Cities for a Healthy Future” talk where he showed a series of pictures of a gradual transformation of a cross-section in a city: starting from a barren scene with no sidewalks or biking lanes, ending with a charming pedestrian-friendly cross-section with trees, flower beds, wide sidewalks, crosswalks, clear traffic signs and an entire street devoted to pedestrians. The point was that not everything has to be done at once, it can start from just adding a crosswalk and pedestrian traffic lights, and slowly become so that the entire environment encourages walking and biking instead of driving.

Besides, it makes sense to keep children active and give them nutritious food.

  • Healthy kids = better students
  • Better students = healthy communities
  • Healthy communities = healthy future

The advantages of synergy and partnerships are clear from this perspective as well: what is simple and cheap for one person can be very difficult and expensive for another. That’s why it is crucially important to find the right person to work with. Sharing tips, tricks, experiences, and best practices is equally important. That’s really what education is also about. Technology can help a lot if it’s done right for the target group’s needs and fits into existing routines reasonably well.

Leon T. Andrews is from ChangeLab Solutions, who have collected lots of tools and policies on their website. For example, they have a toolkit for advocates who want to work with city planners to create healthier cities. Maybe something like this could be made more interactive to make it easier for ordinary people to figure out some basic things they could also do to help a little?

International perspective

I met several other international participants in an evening reception and in the International Division meeting. No one else from Europe, though. There was a wonderful woman from Argentina who had started her own initiative to develop educational materials and programs for schools to promote healthier eating and physical activity. She was extremely interested in how to leverage technology to lessen the need for people to travel around teaching, but the problem in Argentina is that schools don’t usually have Internet connections or computers for children. We came to a conclusion that the best way to start would be to develop a DVD for those schools which at least have computers on-site.

Other interesting perspectives included an energetic South Korean woman’s story of the country’s journey of advancing from malnourishment and poverty after the Korean war to being the 11th strongest economy in the world, and a woman from New Zealand who was doing her PhD in food literacy and how to measure it. Food policies in different countries and the sustainability of the entire food systems were also discussed critically.

And I just love hearing different accents from around the world!

Talking about weight

Rebecca Puhl from Yale Rudd Center and Dianne Neumark-Sztainer from University of Minnesota made compelling cases against dieting and weight stigma. Puhl presented research results that demonstrated how obese children are 63% more likely to be bullied, largely because overweight characters are always portrayed in a negative way in children’s media. It’s an awfully big problem because weight-based teasing easily leads to social isolation, lower performance at school, depression or anxiety, and less physical activity. Also, teachers and parents look at obese children more negatively. All this obviously results in increased emotional eating, which makes the original problem worse, which leads into more emotional eating and… you get the picture.

Neumark-Sztainer talked about dieting in adolescence and presented findings from longitudinal studies which showed that dieting predicted binge eating. Stopping a diet was not associated with greater weight gain than persistent dieting. So, diets don’t really work. Instead, I think that helping people form new small habits is the way to go. Figure out what the person can do and how s/he could do it.

We need to be able to communicate with anyone in a sensitive, respectful manner. Health at Every Size approach makes a lot of sense, especially since exercise really should be fun, stress-relieving, energizing activity instead of a dreary obligation.

My posters & technology

I presented two posters about predictors of adherence and water intake advice. Dieticians were more interested in water, researchers more in adherence. I discussed the importance of self-efficacy and mental well-being with a couple of people and got a reference to Ellyn Satter’s Eating Competence approach, which focuses on two aspects in healthy eating, which make a lot of sense:

  • The permission to choose enjoyable food and eat it in satisfying amounts.
  • The discipline to have regular and reliable meals and snacks and to pay attention when eating them.

Technology had a relatively small role amidst policies, education programs, partnerships and environmental influences. That is perfectly fine, I think. Nevertheless, a couple of posters focused on mobile applications and tablet games aimed for children. There was also a session about enhancing your presence in social media – how to best use Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs. It seems to be pretty essential nowadays to have social media presence, but sometimes I wonder how fragmented our time (at least mine) becomes when we start following all these things.



It was so hot that I couldn’t really spend a lot of time outside without melting into a puddle. Nevertheless, we managed to get some walks in. The main attraction nearby was the National Zoo, which held animals from almost all parts of the world. Still, it just doesn’t feel quite right to keep living things imprisoned, even though giant pandas would probably be extinct without zoos by now. What affected me the most was seeing gorillas that were munching on snacks looking bored, orangutans trying to make their beds more comfortable by fluffing up the pile of hay, and other primates leading quiet family lives. Those guys looked just like humans, and I wondered why I was on this side of the bars and they on the other side.

Father’s taking a nap while mother’s nursing the baby.

We also went to see an eating disorder play called “Breaking Up With ED” with a colleague. ED is this nasty fellow who barges in uninvited and generally makes everyone miserable. The play was touching and funny, with monologues from various different characters, either suffering from eating disorders themselves or watching someone else’s suffering.

Next year

Next year’s conference will be held in Portland, Oregon, the healthiest and greenest city in the United States. Apparently, the founders of Portland were cunning fellows who wanted to attract more businesses, so they decided to make downtown blocks only half of the length of standard city blocks. As a result, the city is very pedestrian-friendly.

Guilt of a Consumer

I scribbled these paragraphs a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting in a plane and looking down to the vast blue ocean, mostly covered with clouds. I remember wondering what kinds of living beings swam under the glimmering waves, and whether pollutants in their environment were making them sick. I could try to rationalize my travelling, but I couldn’t deny being part of the problem.

What can change the nature of a man? Love or guilt, perhaps. This is about both of them.

I’m flying across Atlantic once more. My soul, which has trouble with keeping up with the speed, is growing weary of it. But I felt that the ties, some of them bound by blood and others by friendship, compelled me to visit Finland in the summer. And oh, the light skies, the clear lakes, and the sweet flavor of berries. Goose berries, blueberries, a couple of swims, walks and talks.

Still, those are sort of selfish reasons. I know I’m not practising what I preach in every domain of life. What if Facebook’s “Places I’ve visited” map also included the amounts of CO2 emissions produced by the journey? What if people, while telling about their vacation trips, would also recite the number of trees that would need to be planted to offset the harm done to the environment, or the volume of the arctic ice that melted as a result?

Most estimates state that a single trans-Atlantic  flight produces roughly an equal amount of CO2 emissions as driving an average car – non-stop – for a year. I’m really sorry, polar bears.

I can certainly explain away and rationalize my travels, but still – my sister only visited Finland once during her exchange year in France. And she survived. Afterwards I learned that she certainly wasn’t happy all the time, but she grew a lot during that year.

The person who I will miss the most during the rest of this year gave me a book to read on the journey. It’s Alissa Quart’s book about brands among youth, published ten years ago. I’m afraid it’s still an accurate portrayal of the lifestyle of a major part of youth in USA (perhaps not as much in Ithaca). In summary, the picture that Quart paints depicts teenagers and kids as willing slaves to the companies that happily exploit them to market their products more effectively.

In one chapter, she talks about Breakfast Club, a youth movie made in 1985 (I’ve actually seen it too when I was a teenager, and I admit that I liked it). It is similar to other youth movies in the 70s and 80s: it’s about loneliness and not fitting in, and ultimately about strengthening own personal identity. Being your own unique person.

In contrast, youth movies nowadays seem to be only about fitting in into the mainstream. People need to brand themselves with clothes, makeup, shopping, and gigantic parties. These movies promote herd mentality. Not to mention that the expensive brands usually originate from sweatshops in Asia where workers need to work around the clock to be able to feed themselves.

Why do we consume instead of creating or enjoying? Why do we seek our self-worth through possessions and self-enhancement through dressing up and modifying our bodies?

Again, it’s the environment that we live in. Advertisements, television, magazines, shops, other people’s Facebook status updates and vacation photos. They all shout that we should strive to not look natural or casual, and that we must travel (and especially take photos!) around the world so that we’re not considered boring.

Travel can certainly broaden the mind, but we need to take the time to truly understand the local people and nature. Every place has a history and life of its own. It should be given the appreciation it deserves.

NordiCHI conference is coming up, October 14-17 in beautiful Copenhagen. My colleagues in Finland are setting up a workshop about designing for wellness and behavior change.  Ten days until the submission deadline:

Wish I could be there, but since I cannot, you should go!

23½ Hours

A quick question: can we limit our sitting and lying to just 23½ hours a day?

Lazy blogger, me. June has swiftly flown past like the hawk I saw above Taughannock Falls a couple of weeks ago. (Well, the hawk kind of lingered a while and circled around, but I would have still liked to observe it longer.) But I’m happy that I haven’t needed to travel in June. I’ve finally had enough time and relatively spry feet to explore nearby places by bike.


Happy feet at Robert H. Treman state park

As a result of settling down in Ithaca again, I’ve also really started to feel the itch for volunteer work. I feel the need to do something concrete and purposeful where I can see the results quickly. Donating blood used to be my lifeline in Finland – every 3-4 months I’d go and watch the blood flow out of my vein with a fascination that some might call morbid. (As a scientist, I think it’s perfectly natural to be interested in bodily fluids.) Since I’m denied that pleasure here in United States, being from Europe where everyone’s tainted with Creutzfeld-Jacob, I’m feeling the need to find some other real way to help. Research, while valuable in long-term (I hope), just doesn’t deliver fast enough.

I’m by no means unique with my need for purpose. According to Deci and Ryan’s Self-determination theory, purpose (or relatedness) is one of the three basic needs. The other two are autonomy and competence, out of which I currently have plenty of the first and less of the second one. Drive by Daniel H. Pink explains the theory in layman’s terms and gives lots of good ideas for companies that want to increase productivity – give more freedom and flexibility to employers, because intrinsic motivation is much more powerful (in creative tasks) than extrinsic. That should be obvious, but requires a new kind of a mindset. Pink also mentions that the amount of volunteer work is increasing, which indicates that people want to contribute, do good things and feel they’re doing something worthwhile.

Everyone wants to feel they're doing something worthwhile

From the lovely

So, you ask, what am I doing to fulfil my need for purpose? Well, not awfully much yet. Decided to bike 100 miles around Cayuga Lake in September to raise funds for AIDS prevention and support. Also started volunteering a small sliver of my time to Ithaca Health Alliance’s outreach and education program. And I sign every darn petition that I find that is about protecting basic human rights or preventing pollution. Those who are my Facebook friends may have noticed…

I do believe that the research we do can change the world for the better. But I think the focus should be more heavily on communities, families, social ties and social support, as well as figuring out what people really want. Plus, starting small, remembering that people need to be able to say: “this is my decision”, “I’m able to do this” and “this is meaningful”.