Eating healthy—in schools and spaceships
By Greg Breining
Until a recent uplifting and much ballyhooed experiment, Traci Mann had spent years studying what might be termed the frailty of human nature. "I say I study self-control," says the associate professor of psychology.
Perhaps, more accurately, loss of control.
Mann's research had demonstrated time and again that people confronting a temptation would fail. Usually she studied dieters trying to stick to a diet. They would lose weight, only to gain it all back, and more. Environmental cues would cause them to eat when they tried not to. Restricting calories caused chronic psychological stress and cortisol production—two factors known to cause weight gain.
"I'm on the record telling people they shouldn't diet, that it doesn't work, and if you try to diet you're sort of setting yourself up to fail," she says.
In fact, her entire outlook on controlling food intake got quite pessimistic. "After studying this for 10 years, I saw that nearly everything we've learned is just another piece of bad news for dieters," says Mann. Even her family was getting tired of it. "My mom kept saying, are you ever going to learn any good news?
"It was becoming increasingly clear there was never going to be any good news."
But now, Mann has found something to cheer about when it comes to eating and human behavior.
In a much publicized study, Mann and four University of Minnesota colleagues have found a sly way to get kids to eat more vegetables. And that work has led to another study of overcoming picky eating—how to get astronauts to eat more while they're in space. Both studies are examples of the sort of scientific research being done in CLA.
For NASA, psychologist Traci Mann thinks about what you'll eat "if you're going to Mars.
Photo by Kelly MacWilliams
First the school lunch news.
After learning that shoppers who took grocery carts with a section marked "produce" did indeed buy more produce, the researchers decided to try a similar trick to get schoolchildren to take more vegetables. They pasted photos of vegetables in the lunch tray compartments, hoping to suggest to kids that their friends might put vegetables in those compartments and that they should too.
It worked. On the day the photographic lunch trays showed up at a Richfield, Minn., elementary school, the number of kids taking green beans more than doubled, from 6 percent on a normal day to more than 14 percent. And the number taking carrots tripled, from 12 percent to more than 36 percent.
That's still far short of all the kids who should be eating vegetables. But it happened without nagging. "Kids don't want to do what they're told to do," says Mann. "They just want to do what they think their friends are doing. I think those pictures gave them the impression that this is what other kids do. Kids must be putting their carrots in that carrot section. And if that's what they're doing, I'm going to do it."
Best of all, the incentive cost hardly anything. "If we can get kids to eat more vegetables without lecturing them about the importance of vegetables, by just giving them the impression that this is what kids do? Perfect."
After that experience, Mann and some of her collaborators decided "on a whim" to pursue a project with NASA to work with another group of reluctant eaters—in this case, astronauts. "How do you not apply to NASA?" Mann asks. "That's so cool."
The problem: Astronauts lose weight, not because of weightlessness, apparently, but simply because they don't eat enough. That's not a problem for a couple of weeks, or even a month at the International Space Station. "But if you're going to Mars, and you're going to be gone for three years, that is a big deal," says Mann. "Our group is trying to come up with little strategies to get them to eat more."
They aren't looking at the quality of the food. "Believe me, people are working on that one." Instead, they are looking at other issues. First, astronauts might be sick of eating the same old, same old. And second, they're too stressed to have much of an appetite.
"They're so busy up there," says Mann, who recently attended a NASA conference. "There's so much to do. And their time is very regimented. One approach we're taking is whether by giving them more control over their eating, their food preparation, and what they eat, we're seeing if that would reduce their stress and increase their enjoyment of food."
Mann and colleagues are doing the "ground" study this year. They will induce stress in volunteers working in simulated space conditions and try to ascertain if allowing them to choose and prepare their own meals alleviates stress and improves appetites.
If the work shows promise, the next phase will be conducted on astronauts in the space station. "We really want these to work!" says Mann.
Indeed, the possibility of moving their food experiments to space has excited more than just the researchers. "My sons now approve of me," Mann says. "It was touch and go when I studied dieting. But now that astronauts are involved, everything's changed."
She's kidding, of course.
"Actually, they always really enjoyed coming to my lab because my lab is full of yummy food. My sons—they think science equals milkshakes. Which I love. That's what they should think."
Greg Breining has written for publications including The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, and is the author of several books on nature and travel.