Are adventurous eaters healthier?

Dining on some fried tarantula in Cambodia.

Dining on some fried tarantula in Cambodia.

When it comes to food, I’ll try anything at least once.

As I documented before, I’ve dined on tarantula, frog, crickets, snake, raw clams, red ants, and durian fruit – and that was just on a single trip through Asia! When back on home turf, I enjoy oysters, sashimi, tripe soup, beef and salmon tartare, foie gras, and other acquired tastes. For the record, I wasn’t always this adventurous with food; as a kid, I consumed a relatively narrow range of foods – mostly of the eastern European and Greek variety. But sometime in my early adulthood curiosity got the best of me – frequent travel has provided ample opportunities for additional experimentation. And today, I’d say I’m reasonably adventurous; at least willing to give anything a try.

That’s why a new paper by Latimer and colleagues, assessing whether food adventurousness is associated with body mass index (BMI; a rough measure of overweight/obesity) and other health behaviours, caught my attention.

A total of 501 non-vegetarian women (average age = 26.8 ± 3.13, average BMI = 25.96 ± 6.17) from the general US population participated in the study.

Food adventurousness was assessed with one simple question asking participants whether or not they had previously eaten any of the listed 16 reasonably uncommon foods: kale, seitan, quinoa, seaweed, bean sprouts, beef tongue, eel, quail eggs, rabbit, kimchi, tempeh, venison, polenta, liver, raw oysters, pork belly. Next, the sample was split into two groups (adventurous and non-adventurous eater) based on whether they had tried more than half (≥9 of the 16) of the foods listed.

Here’s what the authors found:
– Participants who were more adventurous eaters had a lower BMI than non-adventurous eaters (Nerd Alert: this was derived using regression analysis, not by dichotomizing the sample as for the following comparisons)
– Adventurous eaters reported higher levels of cooking to connect with their heritage
– Adventurous eaters were less likely to be influenced by celebrity diets
– Adventurous eaters were more likely to host friends for dinner
– Adventurous eaters reported being more physically active
– Adventurous eaters were less concerned with low price, ease of preparation, and nice packaging of their food

Thus, overall, individuals who tend to eat a greater range of foods, particularly more exotic ones, appear to exhibit a number of healthy behaviours and a lower BMI. The reasons for these observed associations are anyone’s guess.

Finally, however interesting the findings, it must be noted that these results are preliminary and should be interpreted with caution.

First off, the sample was composed exclusively of young women – who knows if these results hold up in middle-aged men.

Also, the foods included in the measure of adventurousness were nutrient-dense, relatively healthy foods (e.g., bean sprouts) rather than energy-dense nutrient-poor foods (e.g., ice cream). If the scale of food adventurousness instead assessed the variety of pop or potato chip flavours someone had tried, a very different relationship between food adventurousness and BMI may have been observed.

Finally, most of the results are based on a simple comparison of two groups of women (adventurous vs. non-adventurous) who may differ on many other unmeasured factors (e.g., maybe those that are adventurous with food are also of higher socio-economic status and can afford healthier foods – nothing to do with adventurousness, and everything to do with relative wealth).

In the meantime, why not buy an unfamiliar vegetable at the grocery store on your next trip, find an online recipe, and try your hand at a new dish?

Variety is the spice of life, after all.

By the way, would you be classified as an adventurous eater based on the above list of foods. (For the record, the one thing I’ve not eaten on that list was seitan, which I had to Google. Guess what’s just been added to my list of things to try!)



Lara A. Latimer, Lizzy Pope and Brian Wansink. Food Neophiles: Profiling the Adventurous Eater. Obesity Volume 23, Issue 8, pages 1577–1581, August 2015.

Category: News, nutrition, Obesity Research, Peer Reviewed Research | 5 Comments

The BEKANT standing desk from IKEA: a review

designnews-bekantDespite the fact that Travis and I (though, mostly Travis) have been blathering on for years about the benefits of standing and treadmill desks, only in the past few months did I start regularly using a standing desk at my office. On a theoretical level, I was always a fan of the idea of a standing desk. I’d tried previously to concoct my own standing desk by stacking some boxes here and there, but the set up was never very good – my posture always felt awkward, the whole thing took time to set up and break down, and it all looked rather unsightly.

When I found out IKEA had come up with a more reasonable and cost-effective option, I immediately ordered one. The desk I have is called the BEKANT sit/stand desk (retail price: $500 USD); its height is electronically adjustable from 22″ to 48″ (way beyond the range that I could ever use as a male of average height) with the push of a discrete button. Although not all of my experiences assembling IKEA furniture were as seamless, I was able to go from opening the box to having a working desk in under an hour. Thus far, I’ve really had absolutely no problems with the desk. Moreover, after over a month of first-hand experience I’ve become absolutely convinced it’s the way most desk-bound people should work.

In terms of actually using the stand up desk, here’s what I’ve learned thus far.

1. You shouldn’t stand all day.

Switching back and forth between standing and sitting throughout the day is the way to go. The first day I had my desk set up, I ended up spending almost the entire day standing – I guess the excitement got to me. That evening I felt REALLY tired and barely had the energy to do a workout. The next day I started alternating between standing and sitting every 2 hours or so.  Now, after a bit more experience, I’ve developed a natural rhythm to my day where I stand until I get a bit tired, and then sit until I feel sleepy and lethargic. On most mornings I start by standing – it just feels natural after a bike ride to the office.

2. You have greater focus while working and standing.

By standing, I can largely avoid the lull in focus and energy I often experience in the mid-afternoon – you know, that time when you feel like you need a siesta or another coffee, or perhaps a snack? Now if I happen to start losing focus, I just get out of my chair, raise my desk and within minutes I feel like I just threw back an espresso shot.

3. The screen(s) need to be elevated.

You really can’t work comfortably, with a decent posture, if your screen is at the same height as your keyboard. Its one thing to slouch on your chair, but when standing, your arms should be at 90 degrees to the keyboard, which would mean your neck os really tweaked to look at the screen. The solution? If using a laptop, get an external keyboard and elevate the laptop to a comfortable height. I normally use a split screen set-up, so that I have both my laptop screen and an additional monitor elevated while my keyboard rests comfortable on the desk.

4. A foot stool is a wonderful thing.

While standing at my desk, I noticed that after about 20 minutes, I’d start shifting my weight around from one foot to the other, and couldn’t quite get comfortable. I then decided to get a small foot stool (read: a stack of old textbooks) to elevate one foot at a time. This made a tremendous difference in how my back felt, my posture, and my ability to stand for longer duration. On this note, I am also investigating getting a cushiony rubber mat under my feet – the kind most cashiers at the grocery store stand on. I currently stand on a carpeted floor, which provides some cushioning, but more could be better.

Anyone else have similar experience with their standing desk?

I’ll do my best to update my experience at the 6 month mark.



Category: News, Products | 9 Comments

The case against unlimited screen time

student_ipad_school - 025
PLOS Blogs colleague Beth Skwarecki has a post this week on the potential benefits of screen time for kids.  It’s makes points that are similar to those brought up by former PLOS Blogger Melinda Wenner Moyer over at Slate last year, and another by Emily Oster at Five Thirty Eight titled Screen Time for Kids is Probably Fine.

One commonality between these studies is that they tend to focus on the psycho-social impacts of screen time (learning, executive function, grades, etc), rather than the physical impacts.  As shown in the below table from a systematic review on the impacts of sedentary behaviour (mostly TV time) in kids, there is a pretty strong relationship between increased screen time and negative outcomes in school-aged children (the same is true for pre-schoolers).

A common argument made in the recent articles by Beth and others is that that many studies looking at these outcomes may be influenced by other factors, such as socio-economic status, which make it difficult to draw questions about screen time itself.  For example, if poor kids tend to get more screen time and have lower grades than kids who aren’t poor, then it’s tough to know if it’s the screen or the poverty (or something else entirely) that is causing the poor grades.  And screen time is higher among kids in lower socio-economic groups, which supports that argument.  And when you adjust for socio-economic status, the relationships between screen time and mental health outcomes often weakens, which again supports their point.  So I will agree that the research there is murky, and that their conclusion with respect to those particular outcomes is pretty reasonable.  As they argue, the content of the screen time (e.g. reading vs educational video games vs violent video games) may also be important here, rather than the total amount.

However, my concern  is that there are other health outcomes for which the evidence is not so nuanced.  For example, the association between screen time and physical health is consistent regardless of what you adjust for.  Take this study from my PhD, which examined the association between screen time and various health outcomes in kids with a family history of obesity (I’ve discussed the study in more depth here.).

We found that leisure time computer/video game use was positively associated with overall health risk, increased waist circumference, and reduced HDL-cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) in boys, while TV viewing was positively associated with overall health risk, waist circumference body weight in girls (all of these results have been adjusted for socio-economic status and other confounders).

To give a sense of the strength of these associations, a 1 hour increase in computer use was associated with a 0.8cm increase in waist circumference in boys, even after adjusting for sexual maturation, parents’ education and income, and daily physical activity.  Similarly, a 1 hour increase in TV time was associated with a 0.66 cm increase in waist circumference in girls, after adjustment for the same confounders as above.

The links between screen time and physical health are very consistent, and have been outlined in a number of large systematic reviews (see here and here for examples). And most strikingly, studies that force children to reduce their screen time result in reductions in body weight, without making any other lifestyle changes (discussed here).

Contrary to what you might think, this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with physical activity.  From Emily Oster’s piece:

With this insight, it’s easy to see why less television is likely to decrease obesity. The process of weight gain and loss is pretty simple: if you burn more calories than you take in, you’ll lose weight. Watching television is mostly done sitting. And most other activities involve at least some moving around. So pretty much no matter what else they do, watching less TV is likely to be associated with kids burning more calories and losing weight.

The studies that have shown that cutting screen time cuts body weight have found that it’s actually due to reduced food intake, rather than increased activity (details here).  It seems that screen time is really good at promoting food intake, and cutting screen time results in natural reductions in food intake, without needing to make other changes.  It’s actually a super cool finding, especially considering how difficult it can be to influence food intake or body weight with traditional interventions.

All this to say that even if screen time doesn’t have such a big impact on mental health outcomes (or if the impact is complicated, which is likely the case), that doesn’t mean that we can just sweep the physical health implications under the rug.  This is not to say that all screens are necessarily equal (e.g. an ipad may be different from a TV, etc), or that your child is doomed if they get the odd bit of screen time.  But the evidence linking screen time with negative physical health outcomes is too clear to simply ignore.



Category: News | 6 Comments

This picture captures why “no sugar added” is a meaningless concept

It seems that every time I go to the grocery store I see more products proudly announcing that they have “no sugar added”.  Typically these claims are seen on juice and other products that contain a high sugar content.

As Yoni Freedhoff has pointed out in the past (emphasis mine):

[These claims are] there to make you feel that the product inside the box is a healthy one.

A quick peek at the back of the box is probably in order.

Take Mott’s Fruitsations Unsweetened Strawberry Fruit Rockets for instance. Reading the ingredients you’ll find that they include both, “Concentrated Strawberry Puree“, and, “Concentrated Fruit Juices“.

And what are concentrated purees and juices?

Sugar.  Plain old sugar.

I know that some people will say that sugar in juice is different from table sugar or high fructose corn syrup because it is “natural”.   I disagree.  But let’s say that we accept that the sugars found in juice are somehow “better” than added sugars, and that “no sugar added” is a term that has value.  What then to make of the below picture, courtesy of freelance science writer David Despain:
Continue reading »

Category: News | 2 Comments

Do allergy meds contribute to weight gain?


Some folks have allergies that flare up on a seasonal basis. This spring has certainly not been kind to this group.

But if you’re like me, battling your allergies is a year-round affair. The common antihistaimnes available at every drug store, including Cleratin, Reactine, and Aerius, have all at one point or another helped me breathe. More recently, I’ve also been using saline nasal rinses as well as intranasal corticosteroid sprays.

However, the off-the-shelf antihistamines many of us take to get us through allergy season have an additional effect: they may increase appetite. Despite the fact that increased appetite is a fairly well-known side-effect of antihistamines, the packaging of my allergy meds had no mention of this.

Histamine is a neurotransmitter which, in addition to mediating the inflammatory response, and thus symptoms of allergies, suppresses appetite. Thus, antihistamines, which work by blocking the H1 histamine receptor, may remove this appetite suppressing signal.

Not surprisingly, a paper published in the journal Obesity suggests a possible link between the use of anti-histamines and body weight.

In the paper, Ratliff and colleagues used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey during the 2005-2006 years.

“268 adults (174 females and 94 males) reported use of an H1 antihistamine and completed all outcome measure components. 599 age- and gender-matched controls (401 females and 198 males) were used as a comparison for body measurements, plasma glucose, insulin concentrations, and lipid levels.”

What did they find?

“After adjusting for gender, prescription H1 antihistamine users had significantly higher weight (P < 0.001), BMI (P < 0.001), waist circumference (P < 0.001), and insulin levels (P < 0.005) compared to healthy controls.”

Specifically, controlling for age and gender, those who take anti-histamines were 55% more likely to be overweight than their non-allergy-suffering peers.

However, the increased risk of overweight with antihistamine use was more pronounced for men than women (70% vs 21% increased likelihood).

No differences between the groups were observed for any of the other metabolic risk factors studied.

Of course, as I mention often with this type of study, the results merely suggest a correlation between antihistamine use and body weight; countless other confounding factors may be playing a role. Nevertheless, the preliminary observation is intriguing.

In addition to the direct effect on appetite stimulation, the increased weight observed with antihistamines may also be due to increased sedation, suggest the authors. Theoretically, at least, the increased sedation may lead to a decreased energy expenditure and weight gain. However, most current antihistamines are only mildly sedative at best.

I have tried to think back to times when I take antihistamines and recount whether I had an increased appetite or sedation, and I’m not sure my personal experiences corroborate this observation. Then again, since I’m a fairly chronic antihistamine user, I’m probably unlikely to notice this change.

For the sake of proper breathing, I’ll stick to my anti-histamines.

I wonder if any of our readers have noted a change in appetite or wakefulness when taking antihistamines.



Ratliff, J., Barber, J., Palmese, L., Reutenauer, E., & Tek, C. (2010). Association of Prescription H1 Antihistamine Use With Obesity: Results From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Obesity, 18 (12), 2398-2400 DOI:10.1038/oby.2010.176

Category: Obesity Research | 8 Comments

Britain releases Expert Statement on workplace sedentary behaviour

Last week an Expert Statement commissioned by Active Working CIC and Public Health England was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine titled “The Sedentary Office: a growing case for change towards better health and productivity” (available here).

From the Get Britain Standing website:

Based on the current evidence Active Working recommends:

  • 2 hours daily of standing and light activity (light walking) during working hours, eventually progressing to a total of 4 hours for all office workers whose jobs are predominantly desk based
  • Regularly breaking up seated based work with standing based work, with the use of adjustable sit-stand desks/work stations
  • Avoidance of prolonged static standing, which may be as harmful as prolonged sitting
  • Altering posture/light walking to alleviate possible musculoskeletal pain and fatigue as part of the adaptive process
  • As well as encouraging staff to embrace other healthy behaviours, such as cutting down on drinking and smoking, eating a nutritious diet, and alleviating stress, employers should also warn their staff about the potential dangers of too much time spent sitting down either at work or at home

I generally think these are a pretty good thing, and seem to match up with the available literature.  I’m a bit surprised to see guidelines this soon in the game (research is really just getting going on this particular issue, so there will likely be a lot more/better evidence in a couple years, at which point this guideline will have already taken hold), but there’s nothing in there that seems really off base from my reading of the literature.  And I think it’s good that they highlighted the potential downside of prolonged standing as well as prolonged sitting.

Now the real question is whether following these guidelines will have any actual health impact (lots of reasons to think it might, but the research isn’t really there yet as far as I have seen).  That being said, I am using my standing desk to write this because there is plenty of evidence to think that standing is probably a good idea at least part of the time. And lots of good acute studies showing benefits of standing/walking.  We just don’t know if that translates into long-term benefits.

As a colleague likes to say, data clusters around data. Once people put out a recommendation like this, everyone else tends to publish data to evaluate that specific recommendation, with the result that research published in the next few years is likely to cluster around the specific recommendations of the guidelines, rather than looking at other volumes of sedentary behaviour (e.g. in the past people might look at the benefit of being above or below 3 hours/day of workplace sitting time; I would bet that future studies will focus on 2 and 4 hours, to be in line with these guidelines). So at the very least, this guideline will likely prompt people like me to study whether following these guidelines actually benefits people, at which point the guidelines will likely be tweaked or vindicated.

The full Expert Statement is available here.


Category: News, Sedentary Behaviour | 4 Comments