Stress, eating not connected in senior study

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Even before beginning the research phase of his senior project, Justin Dean knew that his topic was one that was not only relatable to his student audience, but to the general population as well.

Obesity is a commonly addressed issue in the everyday lives of Americans, but it breaks down into multiple factors of cause and effect. Dean’s presentation, “The Kitchen is Everywhere: Stress, Food Presence, and Effects on Consumption,” not only addressed some of the more common effects that are discussed alongside obesity, but he was also able to focus his student audience on obesity’s relationship with something familiar in the college atmosphere: stress.

The research stage of Dean’s project utilized student participation. Using 40 participants, Dean changed the setting in each research trial to a low-stress or high-stress environment, accompanied either by carrots or M&M’S. He administered a sheet that had several sets of jumbled letters and gave participant a certain amount of time to find as many words as possible from the letters. In this way, participants would think that the purpose of the research was to understand their ability to create words rather than the stress it created and how this affected eating habits.

Based on Body Mass Index calculations, Dean was surprised to find that overweight women were less likely to eat during the time period than healthy weight men and women and overweight men.

However, Dean thought these findings were not in response to test stress but to outside social stresses. Because body image is so pertinent to modern women, Dean explained, “It prevents them from snacking behaviors or eating in front of others, which leads to over-indulging in formal meals in the privacy of their own homes.”

In addition to the stress brought on by tests or body image, Dean said that obesity could be affected by changes that have occurred in portion sizes over time. He explained that his interest in choosing this topic came from a story he watched on the news about a man’s home, built in the 1940s, not having enough pantry space for the man’s modern dishware. The man also continued on to do his own research that showed how dishware has grown steadily by a couple inches each generation.

Dean was able to relate to this story not only with his own experiences dining out and being presented with a massive plate of food, but also with the stress and guilt it has brought him to clear his plate.

“I kind of felt bad for not finishing everything or I would just eat until all the food was gone, only to regret it later,” Dean said.

Despite the long process filling out forms and keeping an organized schedule, Dean  strongly recommends next year’s project presenters take on a topic in health psychology. They are various enough it presents fewer restrictions and a commonly addressed topic will push them to find something interesting within the issue.

Peace of mind about your project originality “can help you craft a presentation that is more accessible and interesting to people outside of your field,” he said.


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