Today’s NPR story on the relationship between weight loss, emotions, and hormones called leptin revealed how far we have come in our understanding of food and our bodies–and how far we still have to go. In “Rational or Emotional? Your Brain on Food,” Columbia University Medical Center researchers reveal that weight loss can cause both a slower metabolism (which can make it harder to burn calories) and lowered levels of leptin–a hormone that works to control appetite. It turns out that when people who have lost weight are given injections of leptin they have more activity in their brains in areas “associated with conscious decisions.” While the study isn’t definitive, the report suggests that increasing these hormone levels may help people who have lost weight make better decisions to keep that weight off in the future.
Who wouldn’t be excited about an injection that could enhance will power, especially in keeping off that hard fought few pounds? But will it, really? For this we have to look at the method. Researchers measured people’s will power by giving them an MRI and then showing them various plastic containers of foods–gummy worms, candies, cookies, bell peppers–and measuring brain activity as they contemplated the yumminess (or lackthereof) in the items. But how many of us confront that moment of food choice (bell peppers or gummy worms, hmm…) while laying in a scanner staring at slow-moving food separated in plastic bins? Aren’t we in fact making food choices in precisely the opposite conditions–standing in chaotic fast food lines, ordering from menus with one hand on the iphone, managing crying children or chatty friends, just after breaking up with girlfriends, while walking the aisles with hundreds of brightly packaged jumbled munchies vying for our attention?
Studies like the one at Columbia are essential if we want to understand the complex ways in which our bodies react to appetite stimulation, and we should. Still, we need to see them for what they are: questions asked and answered in a vacuum. The reporter herself acknowledges this when she opens the piece recalling the overwhelming smell of peanuts sold by a street vendor that challenge her calorie resolve, even in the midst of the story. Would those peanuts have impacted her the same way in the MRI tube with a set of researchers well aware of “good food choices” watching her reactions? We live in a complex culture and it is there that our food choices are made. We can isolate the data in the lab and come up with technological solutions, but these are only going to address part of the problem. And they may make new problems all their own. We need to study food where we eat it–in the real world. For that we need scholars trained in socio-cultural aspects of food production and food choice, and scientists ready to bring them on board.