When signing up for meal plans freshman year, many students wonder why they enter dining halls and leave with the dreaded freshman 15. Prof. David Levitsky, psychology and nutritional sciences, says that the availability of a greater variety of foods is linked to eating more and thus, weight gain.
One of the studies that Levitsky conducted showed that if a subject eats small portions, he will not compensate by eating more later, resulting in weight loss. Another study that Levitsky recently published showed that the greater variety in foods that are available, the more the person will eat.
In one experiment, Levitsky gave subjects either separated vegetables or stir fry made from a combination of vegetables and told them to eat as much as they wanted. He found that when all the food was served at once as stir fry, people ate less.
“[The] reason for that is evolutionary,” Levitsky said. “We never evolved with refrigerators, so when food was available you had to eat it. Therefore, when we see more foods, we want to eat those foods.”
Brandon Zipper ’13, a nutritional science major who is studying variables that affect eating behavior and body weight control with Levitsky, said that in his research, he has found that many college students base their diets off of three main factors: time, effort and price.
Students have a wide variety of options, from chicken wings to salad, at Cornell’s dining halls, which Zipper said gives the students the ability to make healthier choices.
“Those who choose to eat healthy by consuming a balanced and varied diet of different vegetable, fruits, whole grains and lean meats, while avoiding unhealthy foods that are high in fat and simple sugars, can do so,” Zipper said. “However, the majority of students still decide to eat poorly, even when presented with alternative options.”
Students who regularly dine on campus seem to agree with Zipper.
Katy Winkler ’14 said she frequently eats at the dining halls on West Campus. When asked whether Levitsky’s research would have any effect on college students’ diets, Winkler said she does not expect it to because students tend to make impulsive choices at the dining hall.
“I think the buffet style is very appealing for students, and they tend to make the decision in the moment based on what they see in the dining hall,” she said.
Levitsky, however, offered a different explanation as to why students eat poorly in dining halls.
“The more you put on your plate, the more you will eat. It is a fundamental behavior that is hard to get away from,” Levitsky said.
Levitsky said that losing weight will help reduce obesity-related health conditions, as well as money spent on treating these problems.
“We have to know ... the causes of increased body weight in order to treat it,” he added.
Other researchers are also investigating the role of environmental and biological factors in controlling food intake. Levitsky approaches his research from both an academic perspective — how people regulate their body weight — and a practical perspective — what people can do about their body weight.
Unlike Levitsky, many researchers in the field believe that eating is a biologically based behavior that is controlled by brain mechanisms. These researchers believe that if a chemical mechanism controls intake, then a chemical that controls this brain activity can be sold to the public, allowing them to lose weight, Levitsky said.
But Levitsky said that so far, this kind of research has been unsuccessful, because a chemical mechanism does not only affect eating behavior — it also has an effect on other biological systems.
“If we develop a chemical that specifically affects one behavior like eating, it will affect many other systems. That is the whole problem with our pharmaceutical approach to disease treatment; one day, we are going to realize how crude we are in our approach to medicine,” Levitsky said.