Ashley Gearhardt: "Shaming and blaming people rarely leads to successful change"

Welcome to another installment of "10 Words or Less," in which I ask brief questions of interesting people and ask for brief responses in return. Today's participant is the author of the Yale Food Addiction Scale, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, and a researcher bound for greatness. Her doctoral thesis at Yale was the subject of a report on ABC's "World News Tonight," a story, I should acknowledge, that I was interviewed for through through her referral. We met at a private conference on obesity at Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 2009.
Name Ashley Gearhardt
How many different ways has it been misspelled? "At least 3. The 'd' is tricky."
Born when and where "A little farm town in Ohio. Covington. June 18, 1982."
Anything notable about the circumstances? "I was three weeks early. My mother went into labor because she was square dancing."
What's your family circumstance? "I'm married to a wonderful man who could not have had a more different upbringing. He's a legal research librarian from San Francisco who grew up in the city. And I have two miniature wiener dogs who run my life."

Where do you live? "Ann Arbor, Mich., in the old west side of town."
What do you research? "I examine whether there's an addictive process in eating behavior, especially problematic eating behavior."
Why did you pick this line of study? "I was doing alcohol research and got really excited about the wide open spaces available for researching a controversial topic. So in the first year of grad school, I switched my focus from mostly alcohol to mostly food."
What questions are you pursuing right now? "I'm trying to understand what foods might be addictive. I'm really excited about the idea of trying to capture withdrawal from highly processed foods in the lab."
How's your restaurant coming? "My restaurant lab? It's currently under construction. I got some awesome scents for French fry smell today that I can pipe into the lab, so it's coming together."
Does food addiction exist? "I think it is very, very likely."
What's would remove that qualification? "I think we're going to have to understand more about what the active ingredient is. We're going to have to do more work where we don't just use obesity to define food addiction."
How do you define it? "I've been working with the idea that we should define food addiction in the same way we define other sorts of addictions, which right now is based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. I've been trying to use those behavioral indicators to understand whether addiction to food is taking place."
Does having food addiction remove one's responsibility? "No. I think it provides avenues for help. I think that no one wants to be addicted to anything, and right now, if you're struggling, we say it's all your fault. But if there's something about the food that can trigger an addictive process and you're vulnerable to it, you're going to need more help than just the self-blame narrative that isn't getting us anywhere."
Does food addiction explain all obesity? "No. I think there are lot of ways that people can end up being defined as obese. And that doesn't necessarily mean that they're that way because they're addicted to food."
Care to estimate how much obesity it does explain? "Off the top of my head, and this is a rough basis, I think we're seeing in our latest research that it's somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of individuals who are obese are meeting the food addiction criteria."
How many is that? "I don't know, but a lot. The other part is, when it comes to an addictive substance, there's a small subsection that gets fully addicted — with alcohol that's about 10 percent — but many, many many people show a subclinical response where they have a little bit of a harder time managing, more likely to lose control, crave it more often. If certain foods are addictive, a lot of people are going to show that subclinical response that might be enough to tip them into gaining weight, where they're starting to struggle with being overweight or obese, even if they don't meet full blown food addiction."
Does the food addiction scale illuminate other eating disorders? "Some of our new research is finding it's highly associated with binge eating disorder and bulimia, but also finding that it's picking up on people that don't meet for any other eating disorder but who are significantly struggling with how they relate to food."
Something that needs to change "I think we need to stop gerrymandering in our political system. I also think we need to reduce the role of money given for lobbying when it comes to how our politicians make decisions."
Something that people don't understand "Shaming and blaming people rarely leads to successful change."
Someone who should be more famous "I really like the work of Howard Markel. He is an addiction historian, and he writes some really cool books."
Someone outside your family you admire "The easy answer, but it's the first one that comes to my head, is one of my grad-school advisors, Kelly Brownell. He really thinks about the big picture, and does science courageously."
Something you're a little sheepish about liking "I am over the top when it comes to Halloween. Excessively. I dress my dogs in costumes. I spent two hours yesterday making the outside of my house spooky enough to my liking. It's a little much."
Something you like to do outdoors "I like to take my dogs on a walk in the Ann Arbor Arboretum. I also like to go to football games. University of Michigan football games."
Yes, I was going to ask about Michigan love. You were born a Buckeye. "This is abrasive, but this is what I always say to my family: 'You can't choose where you were born, but you can choose to upgrade.' But I love UofM. It's my alma mater. Now it's my employer. And I just love Ann Arbor."
How would you define sustainability? "A practice that allows for longevity without destroying other resources."
What sustains you? "Laughter. My husband, my weiner dogs, friends, family. Not checking my e-mail sustains me. Taking breaks from that."

This is a slightly edited version of an interview conducted on Google Hangouts On Air. See the video here.

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