Dr. Nicole Avena is a neuroscientist and health psychology professor at Princeton University. She studies how food affects the brain, and ways in which we can use psychology to make better food choices, for both kids and adults.
Favorite food: grilled octopus
Favorite vacation spot: Long Beach Island, NJ
Favorite way to practice self-care: running (I am training for a marathon right now)
Words to live by: “To become Spring means risking the absence of Winter. To become presence means accepting the risk of absence” Antoine de Saint-Exupery (from The Little Prince)
What inspired your path to healthier living?
There wasn’t really a focus on good health in my home when I was a kid. We had soda and chips as staples in our diet. I am a first generation college student, and when I got to college I realized that I needed to make some changes to improve my diet, or I was destined to have health problems.
When I started graduate school at Princeton, I got really interested in trying to understand why people choose to eat unhealthy foods even though they know they are bad for them. I started researching how processed foods affected our brains, and it turns out that many of the foods we tend to overeat (like cookies, cakes, and chips, and of course, soda!) can affect our brains in ways that is similar to what happens when someone uses a drug, like alcohol or nicotine. Foods can be addictive, and I think this is a large reason why so many people have a hard time eating healthy.
Now that I have my own family, I try to focus on teaching my girls (9 yrs and 3 yrs old) the why about healthy eating. I think it’s key for children to learn about why it is important to eat fruits and vegetables, not just eat them because Mom or Dad says.
Also, we do allow them to have sweet treats now and then, but we don’t buy ice cream at the store and keep it in the house (nor do we have soda or most other junk foods). They have them when we eat out, if they want. And we really focus on encouraging them to try new foods, as variety is the best way to get all of the essential vitamins and nutrients we need in our diet.
Can you share a success story from friends, family, or patients who turned their health around?
We had a parent in one of our studies who was very overweight and planning to get gastric bypass surgery. She had 2 children close together, went through a tough divorce, and started using food as a way to self-medicate.
After hearing about our research on food addiction, she was like, “That’s me!” It was like a lightbulb went off for her, and she realized that her unhealthy eating habits were causing her to not only be dangerously overweight, but were also affecting her ability to keep up with her kids.
She ended up not getting the surgery after all, as she started just making small changes in her diet and routine that led to really big results for her. She lost a lot of weight, and more importantly, developed a new relationship with food that she now credits with saving her life.
What are the three most impactful steps we can take to set our children up for a life of good health?
1. Teach children that health and weight are not the same thing. So much of the language around eating healthy has to do with not becoming obese. But for kids, I think that message can be damaging. We want kids to love and accept their bodies as they grow and change, and the focus should be on eating good, nutritious foods to be healthy, not to stay slim. This message can resonate with them later in life, as well.
2. Diet is the way you eat every day, not a temporary fix. Your “diet” should be what you regularly eat, not some crash event that is an unhealthy attempt to lose weight. Teaching kids that a healthy diet is the way you eat long term will help them to avoid falling victim to the “diet traps” they may encounter later in life.
3. Moderation is key, but you need to know what moderation looks like. We hear a lot about how everything is OK in moderation, but most people don’t know what moderation means, or have a good way to gauge it. The same goes for kids! You can give your kids real examples and guidelines about the appropriate amount (or frequency) to have snacks and other treats. With my kids, I suggest a “one sweet treat each day” rule. So if my 9 year old had a cupcake at school because it was someone’s birthday, she knows that it isn’t a good idea to have dessert after dinner, too.
What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?
Oh, so many! One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that you are the only one who knows what is best for you and your family. Also, another lesson that I have learned is that you can’t do it all, so outsource the least important things so you have time to do the important things.
Tell us more about your latest book.
My new book, What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler, was a labor of love in many ways and was inspired in part by the fact that when I had my first baby, I was shocked by the lack of nutrition advice that was out there.
The first 1,000 days of life (conception through age 2) are a critical window in which development happens, and the long-term effects of environmental exposures during this period are profound. The book walks parents through the questions they have about feeding their new baby (allergies, choking, when to start, etc.) and also talks about the new science of what foods you can feed your baby from the beginning to give them the best start in life health wise.
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