October – Where Did You Go?

Whew! I’m feel as if I have been nonstop for the past six weeks!

As many of you know, Calm Undone came out October 1st! To help promote it, I did several readings and events. Two that were both fun and a huge success were part of the Do Not Submit series. Hosted every Thursday at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro, it’s a great place to come hear stories for free and enjoy a pint or two! On October 21st I got to read an excerpt from Calm Undone, and you can watch a video of that reading on my YouTube channel here. It was a great night – I sold some signed copies, and my friend Kim got up and told an impromptu story too!

Then I got swamped – but in a good way. This year I was honored to be the Chair of the 2021 International Brain Bee World Championship, which is the world’s premiere neuroscience competition for teenagers! From November 5th-6th, 43 teenagers (ages 13-19) from 31 countries and 6 continents completed a comprehensive exam (composed of a written section, a neuroanatomy section, a neurohistology section, and a patient diagnosis section) to become a finalist in our Live Judging Session. Then on Sunday November 7th, 24 finalists appeared before a judging panel of four accomplished neuroscientists and went 24 rounds of head-to-head questions-and-answers to see who would become the World Champion! We had to cancel the 2020 IBB World Championship due to COVID19, so this year we crowned two! Rahel Patel of the USA took home the 2020 prize and Viktoriia Vydzhak of Ukraine took the 2021 prize. The IBB World Championship is not only about competition, but also preparing the future of neuroscience and building connections across cultures and the world. This year’s event also included a career panel, two thought provoking keynotes given by eminent neuroscientists, a team competition, and an interactive neuroscience research demonstration — proving that neuroscience is as diverse as it is exciting! You can re-watch (or watch for the first time) all the action on our 2021 IBB World Championship YouTube page!

But the craziness did not stop after the IBB – two days later I was at a practice session for Story Lab, where I am a featured speaker!  On Wednesday November 17th I will be one of six up-and-coming cast members entertaining Chicago with stories of wit, adventure, and personal discovery! Story Lab has been a staple of Chicago for over ten years, and after being on an 18-month hiatus due to COVID19, I’m honored to be part of next week’s event! Story Lab is free to all and starts at 7:00 PM at the Ravenswood United Church of Christ.


All in the Family: Owen & my Cousin

Owen is always watching.

Owen is always watching. Copyright AAAS/Science

Science Magazine published my story about working with Baboons and my cousin coming to visit me.  If you have a AAAS or Science magazine subscription, you can read it on their website.  If not, here it is (slightly longer).

All in the Family

  • Garth Fowler, PhD
  • Science 3 May 2013: 549.

When I was a sophomore in college, I won a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to study primate social behavior.  I spent the summer working with a troop of Baboons, about 20 in total, living in a primate facility.  The Baboons were housed together in a large building that had an outdoor courtyard, where they dozed lazily and foraged for seeds that the caretakers would toss to them.  Part of my research was observation.  Everyday I would spend an hour sitting and watching the Baboons, and every 5 minutes I would record, on a piece of paper, which Baboons were socializing with one another.  The dominant Baboon was a 10-year-old male named Owen.  Most often he just hung out atop the 20-foot perch in the open section, and occasionally would grunt and threaten anyone that entered the observation area.

At the time my cousin (lets call him Brandon) was entering his senior year in high school, and visited me as part of his college tour.  We headed down towards the primate center, and along the way I explained to him about the Baboons.  I told him that we would be in an observation space that separated us from the Baboons by large, vertical bars.  The Baboons could reach their hands through and touch us, but the bars were close enough together that when the Baboons balled up their fists, they could not pull their hands back through.  Since my cousin was new to the facility, the younger Baboons would probably be curious enough to reach through and grab his clothing, but nothing more than that. I gave Brandon some yogurt-covered raisons to offer them as treats.   “Most importantly,” I told him, “You have to remember that Baboons threaten each other by showing their teeth and staring you in the face.  So try not to do that.”

When we entered the observation room, I went and got my notepad and timer, and started to pull out my chair so I could begin my recordings.  As I had expected, when Brandon entered the younger Baboons immediately came rushing to the bars to get a better look.  A young baby Baboon – about 2 months old – came up to the bars and started tugging on Brandon’s shirt, begging for treats.  My cousin reached out his hand with raisons, looked the infant right in the face, and with a big smile said, “Look how cute he is.”

Immediately, Owen – who had been watching intently from atop his perch ever since we entered – jumped to the ground and came rushing towards Brandon.  My cousin had unknowingly threatened the youngest member of Owen’s troop, and Owen was going to teach him a lesson.  Owen grabbed Brandon with his hands, pulling him up against the bars.  My cousin was trying to push himself away and yelled for me to do something.  I knew there was no way Owen could get out or really hurt Brandon, and at worse a piece of Brandon’s shirt would probably tear off in Owen’s hand, bringing this all to an end (Once, when I had fallen asleep with my feet propped against the bars, Owen had ripped a piece the sole off of my shoe and kept it for days).  Since Baboons are troupe animals and the other males were watching to see what I would do, I decided the best thing was to sit down and wait for Owen to finish with his threat.  For about two minutes (it probably felt much longer to my cousin) Owen continued to whip my cousin back and forth against the bars like he was a rag doll.  Finally, Owen let go of Brandon – who fell back from the bars onto the ground – and climbed back up to his perch, howling and jumping, declaring victory over my cousin.  The whole troupe was in chaos – the females and younger Baboons ran into the enclosed section of the facility, and the other males were now threatening me through the bars.  I put my stuff away and helped Brandon up from the ground.

“Now what do we do?” he asked.

“Now we go play tennis,” I said as we left the observation room, “because you’ve pretty much ruined any data I might collect today.”

Owen is now very famous in our family. The story has often been retold at family reunions and for years Brandon received occasional postcards of Baboons from our other cousins (there are 21 of us), with the poorly scrawled words “I am watching you, Owen”.  During the rehearsal dinner for Brandon’s wedding, the priest asked his brother if there were any good stories that would be fun to share during the homily.  The next day, the priest said, “Owen is very sorry he is not here to wish you happiness. “ My cousin’s finance turned and mouthed, “Who is Owen?”  Brandon just shook his head, and mouthed “Never mind.”

Want to live longer? Move to a poor country. Maybe.

My friend Britt and I were eating Chimney Cakes and thumbing through the Economist’s 2013 World Almanac (Good Times.  Seriously).  As we were looking through countries, I came across the average life expectancy of males and females in the US and Romania (since Chimney Cakes are a Transylvania treat, and thus Romanian).

“I have a theory,” Britt said, “that countries with higher GDP have a shorter life expectancy, since they essentially work themselves to death.”  I was intrigued;  You can argue that her theory makes sense – as we work harder, especially in the manual labor and service industries, we will wear our bodies out sooner.  But then you can argue the opposite, that with more income and money, countries can provide better health care, improved sanitation, and other benefits that would extend life.  I wondered which was right.

So I spent some time digging up statistics, specifically what is the GDP per person for 21 countries with the longest life expectancy and 18 with the shortest life expectancy, and what the average life expectancy was for each.

All Countries.jpg

Here is a graph showing, for all countries, the relationship between life expectancy (in years on the right axis) and the GDP per person for each country (in dollars on the bottom axis).  The first thing you notice is, we actually have two divergent groups.  Individuals in poorer countries live significantly shorter lives compared to those in wealthy countries.  In addition, the GDP scales are not even close:  All countries in the ‘wealthy’ category had GDPs over $30,000 per person, with some in the high $80,000 per person.  The highest GDP per person for the poor countries was $790.  Trying to treat them as one group won’t make sense.  If we were to correlate these, the relationship would just be a straight line, from the dots on the lower left to the dots at the upper right.  That doesn’t help much, for we know that at a certain point, it is better live in a wealthier country than a poorer country. 

So we have to break apart the groups.  Below is the graph for the poor countries.

Poor Countries

And here is the graph for the wealthy countries.

Wealth Countries

Immediately, we see that the trends are opposite.  That is, for poorer countries, as GDP per person increases, life expectancy does too.  However, for the wealthier countries, it is the opposite:  As GDP per person increases, then life expectancy drops.

This is a quick and dirty analysis, and a true economist could do so much more with better (and more) data.  This does suggest, though, that there is a price to pay when countries start to pump up their GDP.  The question is not how to get the most work from your population, but how to get as much as you can – and keep them healthy and living long, happy, lives.

Want to lose weight? Drink (Good) Beer

I just could not resist writing about this when I stumbled upon the interesting factoid about beer and obesity:  States with the highest number of craft beers per 100,000 people also have lower obesity rates (for those of you statistically inclined, the correlation rate is -0.54).  This observation comes from The Atlantic Cities website, which did a report on the increase of craft beer breweries in the United States (there are more craft breweries now than any time since 1887).  What is even more interesting was the quick set of correlations they performed, including the one I just mentioned above.

Let’s work through this relationship. Below are the maps showing US Obesity rates in 2010 (from my previous post) and the map put together by The Atlantic Cities showing the number of craft breweries per 100,000 people, for each state.

First thing to note here, is that many of the the red states on the left (indicating states with adult obesity rates greater than 30%) overlap with the light purple states on the right (indicating that there is, on average, less than 1 craft brewery in the state for every 100,000 people).  I said mostly overlap, as there a few red states (like Michigan) that are a medium-purple too, which tells us that some heavily obese states  average between 2-3 craft breweries per 100,000 people.  Second, notice that dark purple states on the right (indicating, on average 3 or more craft breweries per 100,000 people) are also yellow states on the left (indicating adult obesity rates between 20-25%): Vermont, Montana, and Oregon So now I can add drinking my loveable “Old Chub” Scottish Ale as a good substitute for running home from work once a week!

Of course, I’m having fun – because obviously, drinking beer (even yummy craft brews) does not make you thin.  As we all know (and the The Atlantic Cities website is quick to point out) correlation only shows how well two things are related – not that one causes the other.   The question now is, are there any obvious characteristics that make Vermont, Montana, and Oregon polar opposites of places like Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and could possibly be related to both obesity and craft breweries? 

I had two, and neither seem all that probable:  The first is mostly related to Montana, Oregon, and Vermont.  All three are what we could call ‘outdoorsy’ states, and are known for adventure tourism (like skiing, hiking, camping, etc).  So that might explain the low obesity rates – high exercise and activity. How does this relate to craft breweries?  My best guess is, with vacationing and adventure goes drinking and eating good food, and craft breweries would fair well in these states.  As far as I know, few people plan adventure-related vacations to places like Mississippi, West Virginia, or Texas (does anyone really plan a vacation to Texas?).

The second is better education, particularly in agriculture and sciences.  There is already a fairly decent correlation with overall education and decreases in obesity, and The Atlantic Cities website also showed a weak, positive correlation with craft brewery and adults with college degrees (0.32).  Ask any brewer, and he or she will tell you that making beer (or wine for that matter) is highly scientific, and requires lots of chemistry and math.  You need a population that is willing and able to use science everyday as part of its job.  The central US states do not fair well in reports on science and engineering education studies (Mississippi ranked last in all the states on the Science and Engineering Readiness Index of high school students).  So perhaps the underlying cause between craft brewery and obesity is better educational attainment.

As I said, neither are that great at explaining the correlation; if anyone has better ideas, fire away!

Finally, here are two more interesting correlations with craft breweries: Craft brewing is less likely in conservative states, with a modest negative correlation (-0.30) to 2008 John McCain votes (there was no statistically-significant association to Barack Obama votes); And craft brewing is more closely associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being (0.47).

Hurray Beer!

Down with Abstinence…. and Pregnancy?

In July 2007 the NYTimes reported that abstinence education was suffering; after experiencing fairly-solid growth in places like Texas (where else?), it seems that despite attending abstinence hug-ins, and Bible readings, teenagers still went home to sleep with one another afterwards. Not because abstinence is bad (quite the contrary, it is the only method that 100% stops the spread of STDs) but because in Texas, abstinence education, by the admittance of abstinence promoting organizations themselves, was not about getting teenagers to abstain, but instead was a foot-in-the-door technique for promoting bigger ‘family’ issues, like opposing abortion and gay marriage.

It was a system doomed to failure. No one likes the bait-and-switch. At the time I remember thinking the campaign would succeed by being honest and not a covert agenda of publicly funded morality education.  More importantly, I feared that there would be a backlash and we would see the rate of teenage sex increase – and with it the rates of all the public-health problems associated with it: STDs (including HIV), pregnancy, and unplanned & hurried marriages. But a new report from the CDC shows I may have been overly pessimistic, at least when it comes to pregnancy.  Teen pregnancy rates in all the US states are at their lowest level ever reported (70 years) – including Texas.

However, teens are still having sex, and more of it – in fact, between 1991 and 2001 the percentage of high-school students who reported they had never had sex dropped from 54.1% to 47.4%.  This must mean that teenagers are being more careful about sex despite increased desire (or pressure) to have it.  So what caused that?

Some thank MTV, of all places.  Pregnancy prevention programs have used the teen-oriented network’s show “16 and Pregnant” as a tool for educating teenage girls about the drawbacks of being a teenager and a mother.  Others thank a broader approach to sex education: For example, in 2008, only 4% of Texas school districts had sex-education classes that taught the use of birth-control and other practices as a way to avoid pregnancy (that is, 96% of schools used abstinence-only curriculum).  In 2011 25.5% of schools included information beyond abstinence (or what is called abstinence-plus curriculum).  We might have to thank the internet and social media – where teens can find and trade knowledge about sex in a non-threatening and peer-accepting way; the drawback here is this information can often be incorrect. Finally, the popularity of the Twilight series and shows like (again) MTV’s “Teen Wolf” that promote abstinence and have popular characters that are virgins must help too.

Whatever the reason the effects are evident:  Approximately 80% of both male and female teenagers use birth-control (almost always a condom) during their first sexual experience (from “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive
Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008”, CDC, June 2010).

What I take from all of this – as someone that deals with college-aged teenagers – is that the kids are thinking, which is alright with me!

Our Friends Make us Fat. Maybe.

Do our friends make us fat?  Technology can definitely influence how much we eat, and therefore our weight.  So does the time it takes for us to make healthy food.  There is lots of evidence to suggest that yes, our friends, can lead to increases in food consumption and our weight.

Imagine you go out to grab a meal at your favorite restaurant.  To make this easy, let’s assume you eat 100 calories worth of food if you are by yourself (in all actually, meals are more along the lines of 1200 calories, but I hate math, so let’s stick with 100 calories).  Studies of how people eat in the real world (compared to those done in labs) show that if you go to the restaurant with one other person, you’ll increase your calorie consumption by 33%.   In other words, you will eat 133 calories.  Bring two friends, you consume 147 calories.  Research has shown that by the time you include 7 friends, you will almost double the number of calories you eat. Here is how our 100 calorie dinner has grown:

So what does the mean in ‘real’ numbers?  In 2010 the US Dept of Commerce collected how many calories the average customer at Starbucks ordered:  232.  If we apply the above figure to the average customer ordering food at Starbucks, but this time bringing friends, below is a chart showing the caloric increases.

Our friends, though, are the least of our worries.  Eating with your spouse or a family member almost doubles the calories consumed than if you ate with just your friend.  And of course, there are gender differences.  If you are male, it doesn’t matter if your friend is male or female, you’ll increase your calories about the same.  If you are female, however, you eat more with a male friend then if you are eating with a female friend (personally, I thought it would be the other way around).

So what is happening here?  Why do I eat more with my friends than if I eat alone?  Personal experience gives me one clue:  When I go out to eat with friends, we often start with drinks (which many people forget, do have calories) and a shared appetizer, or two.  (Hell, let’s be honest, we often order three).   Then we each order a meal, and most likely another drink.  Who knows, we might even share our meals.  Whereas alone I or my friend might just order a nice, low-cal Caesar Salad, when there are two, I am more inclined to suggest you order the Caesar Salad, and I’ll order the Chicken Cordon Bleu, and we can split them!  And of course, we might just split dessert. We also know that when we eat with others, we linger.  Eating is a social event, so we take our time.  On average eating with one other person increase the time spent eating by 44%, which means we sit and nibble longer too.

So why the maybe in the title?  Because for large eaters, the effect is the opposite.  If I am someone that usually eats significantly more than the average person, then when I eat with the average person, I drop my calorie consumptionIn other words, eating with others is a normative phenomenon.  Light eaters increase their calories per meal when eating with others, while heavy eaters decrease their calories when eating with others, approaching a middle ground.

So maybe eating with others makes you heavier, but maybe not.  The jury is out on this one.

Spend More, Weigh Less?

If you want to drop some pounds, then perhaps you should drop more cash on the food you eat.  You might think I’m joking, but there is some logic to this.  According to the US Dept of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (where you can find HOURS’ worth of fun numbers; and no, I’m not being facetious, just a geek), I came across the following report.

If you compare the US, UK, Canada and Japan, the chart demonstrates that Americans spend far less on food (almost half of what the Japanese spend) than our economic rivals. In 2009, of all the money Japanese consumers spent, 21.8% went towards food.  That is more than what they spend on housing.  In the US, we only spent 14.9%.  In other words, at the end of the month when you add up all your receipts, Americans only spend approximately $15 out of every $100 on food.  One thing we like in the US is cheap food, and we have some of the cheapest food in the world.

In my “Culture and Politics of Food” class, we just finished covering US Federal subsidies for commodity crops, especially corn.  These policies harken back to the 1970s, when Nixon (and then Ford) were feeling the pressure of rising food costs and the need to get reelected. As a response they appealed to US Dept of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to do something.  And something he did.  By encouraging, and then enticing through cash subsidies, farmers to plant crops “from fence post to fence post,” Butz increased US grain production.  Butz wanted US crops to be cheap and plentiful – so cheap and plentiful that we could use them for anything (like making sugar – or high fructose corn syrup) and to export them to other countries, like Russia.  And one of the outcomes that Butz bragged about from his tenure as Agriculture Secretary was how little Americans spent on food.

Some researchers and public health advocates claim that our cheap (and therefore abundant) food is a root cause of the US Obesity epidemic.  With food so cheap, we eat lots of it.  And what we eat is not necessarily very satiating, and therefore we continue to eat more.  If cheap food is related to obesity then we would predict from the US labor charts that the US would have a higher obesity rate than Japan (or for that matter, the UK or Canada).

Et voila.  If we surf the web, we can find a paper in the Oxford International Journal of Epidemiology on obesity rates for 2nd and 1st world countries.  And in 2001 the US was top notch with 63% of the population being overweight, and 28% being so overweight they were considered obese.  The UK is missing from the study, but Canada has 47% overweight and 15% obesity rates, while Japan comes in with the staggering 23% overweight and 3% obesity rates.

This is, of course, correlation, and that doesn’t prove that cheap food makes us obese.  But it lends credence to the idea that our culture of food is a bit wacked, and causing us to be heavy.  Americans think a good meal is one where you get tons of food for little money; just look at how many restaurants have super-size deals, or in grocery stores how many boxes say “Get twice as much for only 50% more!”  And if we dig a little deeper into the expenditures from the Dept of Labor,  we see that what money Americans do spend on food, almost half is spent eating outside of the home (41.1%), while in Japan less than a quarter of money for food is spent outside the home (21.4%).

Yes Dorothy, there really is Gaydar

You’re walking down the street with your friend, and someone coming the other direction catches your eye.  In an instant – without even trying –  your gaydar goes off. Gaydar, that innate ability to glean another’s sexual orientation from just looking at him or her.  But are you right?  Do you really know she is gay just from looking at her?  And if so, why?  What makes gaydar work?

Scientists from Cornell University and the University of Washington have recently published a paper that not only confirms there is gaydar, but also starts to dig into just how it works.  The study took Facebook  pictures of people that self-identified on their profile as either gay or straight. They cropped everything out of the picture (even their hair) so it was just the person’s face, and then showed them to students at the University of Washington.  Subjects were given 50 milliseconds to view the picture, and then had to guess whether the person self-identified as gay or straight. Surprisingly, subjects were correct about 60% of the time.  So you are saying to yourself “That’s not overwhelming, being right 60% of the time.”  But it is way better than chance.  And it was with only 50 milliseconds of viewing (to help the non-metric, divide a second into 1000 equal parts, and then take 50 of those parts).  We’re talking pretty fast judgments here.

Next, the researchers did something really funky – they did the experiment again with the same set of pictures (different students), and flipped the faces up-side-down.

Bizarre, I know, but here is why:  Other research has shown that when we look at faces right-side up, we pay attention to both the individual features of a face (noting the bright baby-blue of your eyes), and the relationship between these features (just how far apart are those baby-blues).  When the face is upside-down, though, we focus only on the individual features.  Even with up-side-down faces, subjects guessed sexual orientation better than 50% of the time; but performance was best with right-side-up faces.  Meaning that when gaydar is on, it uses both information about your individual facial features, and the relationship of features.  It’s not just your baby-blues, but something about how far apart they are from one another, or perhaps from your mouth, that says your gay or straight.

Here is something else that was weird: Subjects were better at predicting the sexual orientation of female faces (correct 64% of the times) than male faces (correct 57% of the time).  This is really interesting, because most the students making judgments were also female (19 out of 24).  The gaydar bias in judging females faces in this study might come from the fact that each of us is best at gleaning sexual preference from faces of our own gender.  That is, perhaps gaydar works best for females judging females, and for males judging males.

I was intrigued by this, and since I happen to know one of the scientists (the Cornell professor and I both got our PhDs from the University of Washington psychology department), I sent an email asking about gender differences.  She redirected me to the University of Washington graduate student that was lead author on the study, and he answered my question.  In this study there was no difference in performance between female students and male students.  But sometimes, researchers can find that the best gaydar is when women are judging men.  But not often, and it is only a very, very small improvement.

So what’s the whole take home here?  First, gaydar is real (to be honest, this is not the first study to demonstrate that, but it does add to the growing evidence);  Gaydar is not that powerful, since it is right about 60% of the time Gaydar hones in on the relationship amongst the features of our face:   Like how tall our face is, and where our mouth and eyes are in our face.  Finally, it appears that both males and females are just as good at ‘gaydaring’ people.

But none of it explains the lyrics to Blur’sGirls & Boys“.  Perhaps that will be another experiment for another day…..

Endless Days (or Bowls) of Soup

While I was flying home to a family reunion last summer, I sat next to a Marine Drill Sergeant on the plane.  When he found out that I was professor, and that I taught a class on obesity, he laughed. “There is no reason for a whole class on why we are fat,” he chuckled.  “I tell all my new recruits loosing weight is easy.  CICAS:  Calories In, Calories Out, Stupid.  You can eat all you want, as long as you make sure you burn all you eat.”  Admittedly, his statement is true. But it kept me thinking, then why are people still heavy, and only getting heavier?  If it really did boil down to burning all the calories we ate, then there is convincing evidence that Americans should be fit, if not loosing weight.  Considering that the health and gym memberships are a $25 billion industry, and during economic downturns gym memberships experience growth (albeit small), it appears that Americans are working hard at the ‘calories out’ aspect.  So what is happening with the “calories in’ part?

If we look closely at calorie consumption in the United States, we find that most people eat more calories on a given day then they really need.  In 2000 the US Department of Agriculture found that the average daily caloric intake was 2,900.  That is almost 700 calories more than what is recommended for males 18 – 30 years of age.   And looking back at old editions of the Joy of Cooking, recipes have increased their calorie content by 37%, mostly because the portion sizes have increased.  And it does not take that many extra calories each day for you to gain weight.  A study by the University of California Wellness Center found consuming an extra 19 calories per day more than you burn results in gaining 2 pounds over a single year.

But what has only 19 calories?  It is hard for us to picture something that is only 19 calories – and that is because we really are not good at judging calories.  To be fair, it is hard.  Equal amounts of two foods do not mean have equal calories.  Take, for example, cucumbers and M&Ms. A medium sized cucumber has 19 calories, while a single, Fun Size bag of M&Ms has 103 calories.  You would have to eat five medium sized cucumbers to get about the same number of calories as the bag of M&Ms. Put another way, you only get to eat about 3-5 M&Ms to get 19 calories.  So if you eat an extra 3-5 M&Ms each day, for a year, you would gain 2 pounds.

In order to consume fewer calories we need to do something very simple, but admittedly very hard:  Stop eating.  Or maybe, stop eating when we are full.  Americans, however, ignore when our bodies tell us it is time to stop eating.  Psychologist Brian Wansink asked Americans diners (from Chicago) and French diners (from Paris) how they know when to stop eating a meal.  The French said they stopped eating when the food no longer tasted good, or they were no longer hungry.   The Americans, however, said they knew it was time to stop eating when there was no more food left on the plate, or (worse yet) when the television show they were watching while eating was over.  In other words, American’s rely upon external cues to help us determine when we have had enough calories.

Probably the best example of this is another study done by Wansink and colleagues, called the Bottomless Bowl of Soup.  In this study, 54 males at a university were invited to participate in a ‘soup-only’ lunch, and then answer some questions about the soup. Each diner sat at a table with three other people, and was told to enjoy as much soup from his bowl as he wanted.  The participants talked and ate, as one would during a normal lunch.

What the participants did not know was half of the subjects had a ‘self-refilling’ bowl.  That is, the bowls were connected to a pot of soup by a large tube that ran under the table, and was hidden from view.   This allowed Wansink and his colleagues to slowly refill the soup bowls, so that the diner would never reach the bottom of the bowl.  Wansink gave each table 20 minutes before interrupting the meal and asked a series of questions.  One was how each participant knew to stop eating the soup, and more than half of the participants stated, “When the bowl was empty.”  Since half of the bowls were refilling, they would never get empty – and indeed only one person stopped eating and realized the trick.   This was because he attempted to pick the bowl up from the table to drink his soup (It turns out, compared to the French, Americans also have poor dining manners)!

Those participants with a bottomless bowl of soup ate more than those at the table with normal bowls.  And not just a little more – but almost twice as much (14.7 ounces of soup for the bottomless bowl group, compared to 8.5 ounces for the normal).  Wansink also asked each diner how many calories he thought he had consumed.  Here the two groups were similar, each thinking they had consumed about 125 calories of soup. In reality, the group with the normal bowls consumed about 155 calories, while those with the bottomless bowls consumed nearly 270 calories!

But who really eats from a bottomless bowl of soup?  Or drinks from the bottomless bottle of soda?  The answer, of course, is no one.  Not normally. But the average American does eat more calories each day than really needed.  We do not pay attention when our bodies tell us to stop eating – but instead we pay attention to much food we have available.  And this is bad.  As technology and science increase our ability to grow and produce more food, Americans will most likely continue to eat more.  In fact, we know this is true already.  A pair of Australian economists downloaded from the US Department of Agriculture the amount of raw grains American farmers had grown for a 10-year period.  As expected, they found that America increased food production over time, most likely due to better technology for growing and harvesting grains.  The Australians then compared this increase in food production with the average increase in weight for the same 10-year period.  And surprisingly (or not, considering what we have just discussed in the previous paragraphs) the increase in food production matched perfectly the increase in weight.  Meaning, gives us more food, and we’ll eat more food.  We just cannot seem to stop those calories from coming in!

Shit Graduate Students Say…..

Part of me believes that being a graduate student is really about learning what NOT to say.  And this YouTube video is proof!  I have to admit, my graduate training experience was not near as bleak as this one – but there were days when I wondered “What the hell am I doing here?”  My friends and I use to go the bar and ask each other that all the time.  Nowadays, though, I guess you make a video of it and just post it.

So this is what is wasting my time today…..