Nicole Avena: "Know what you're eating"

Nicole Avena, influential researcher on sugar addictionWelcome to another installment of “10 Words or Less,” in which I ask interesting people for brief answers to brief questions. Today’s participant is one of the world’s most accomplished researchers in food and addiction. Remember, please: No counting! “10 words” is about attitude, not addition, and besides, let’s see you do it. 

Name Nicole Avena, Ph.D.
Family status Lives in New Jersey, married, one child
Occupation Assistant Professor at University of Florida, Department of Psychiatry, and Visiting Research Associate at Princeton University, studying neuroscience, appetite, and addiction
Born when, where Point Pleasant, N.J., Oct 5, 1978
A formative event from your childhood “I was in a spelling competition in elementary school and that engendered a fondness for academic reward.”
Where’d you place? “I came in 2d.”
First paying job“Lifeguard at a yacht club.”
Something you took from that job “Aside from a nice tan each summer, I had the chance to teach several children to swim, and that taught me patience and how to negotiate.”
Someone outside your family who influenced you particularly “Bart Hoebel, who was a professor at Princeton and one of my mentors.”

I’m an admirer. Tell me something I didn’t know about him “He was a great scientist, but also a very interesting person. He had a hot air balloon, a steam calliope, a Christmas tree farm, and a steamboat.”
Why study what you study? “The study of appetite and reward and food addiction is important on so many different levels.”
Like what? “It has medical implications, but also social implications, public policy implications, economic implications, etc. It’s important to know what happens when we eat the foods we eat, and why we want to eat them.”
Do you watch what you eat? “I try to as best as I can.”
Have you ever had a weight problem? “No, but I’ve had to work a fair amount to see it stays that way. This means that I have had to exercise and to pay attention to the ingredients in the food that I eat.”
Your most important food principle “Know what you’re eating.”
What sustains you? “Gardening, not only because I grow a lot of food we eat, but I find it very rewarding and therapeutic to be outside, growing fruits and vegetables.”
You mentioned food addiction earlier. How do you define it? “A compulsion to eat in a way that resembles drug addiction on many levels.”
Name a specific way that a perfect world would be different “There’d be more honesty, not only among people but also as it relates to things such as food advertising.”
One thing you wish people would just get right (doesn’t have to relate to your research)? “Drivers have to be more respectful of the fact that they’re guiding a 2-ton machine that can be a weapon.”

From Avena’s website, Avena “has published over 60 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and a book, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She also edited the book "Animal Models of Eating Disorders" (2012) and has a book for a general audience on food and addiction, "Why Diets Fail" (Ten Speed Press) that is due in 2014 and available for preorder now.” She maintains a blog, Food Junkie, to which I have contributed, with Psychology Today. You can also keep up with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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