Food for thought: Science Cafe presentation discusses diet decision making


The latest edition of Science Café at K-State was held at the Aggieville Radina’s on Tuesday. Catherine Steele, a graduate student in the psychological sciences, discussed her research over the relationships between human impulsivity, diet, health and other decision-making factors.

“Why is it that 30 percent of Americans are considered obese? I think there is a disconnect that knowing about diet and nutrition is not enough to actually change our behavior,” Steele said. “That’s where my work comes in.”

Steele said that what we eat has an impact on our day to day decisions involving our patience or impulsiveness. Single instances of impulsivity may not be effective but an accumulation of impulsive choices over time may lead to poor health.

“It is suggested that there are actually 35,000 choices that we make in a single day. In terms of food choices, we’ve got 200,” Steele said.

Steele explained why impulsivity is the main issue with our food choices.

“We often impulsively choose what is convenient to save time, though what is convenient may not be healthy,” Steele said. “Impulsivity may also stem from seeking immediate gratification rather than gratification in the long-term. Immediate gratitude may be accomplished from fast food or snacking though it may not lead to long-term health benefits.”

Steele referenced the famous marshmallow study, where young children are given a marshmallow and watched to see whether they will eat a marshmallow placed in front of them or if they can wait an amount of time to earn another marshmallow.

“The findings of that study show that 40 years later children who waited for the second marshmallow have better social skills, better SAT scores and lower BMIs,” Steele said. “On the contrary, impulsive choices and lack of patience may have lead to future issues not only with diet but also substance abuse, gambling and other temptations.”

Steele noted that poor food choice is not equivalent to moral failure, and the issue is far more complex. Often, people know that they should eat healthier and exercise, but they don’t, prompting others to think that it is their own fault that they are obese.

Steele’s research suggests that it is not that easy. Aside from outside life factors, it is possible that what we eat prevents us from making better choices.

“My research program has been focusing on how diet may be affecting choice. What we eat could be making us more impulsive,” Steele said. “Diet can affect impulsive choice even before physical signs of obesity show up.”

Other K-State professors from various departments were in attendance and able to comment on the discussion.

“[Steele] created this new model that had never been done before and that’s actually what led to her getting that major National Science Foundation award and she’s been working on it the entire time that she has been here,” Kim Kirkpatrick, professor of psychological sciences, said. “I think she did a great job.”

“I think that this type of information should be widely disseminated and could be really impactful to increasing people’s health,” Stephanie Shames, assistant professor of biology, said.