The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food

Yale University

This course takes a comprehensive look at eating as it affects every aspect of our lives. From personal health to social ritual, our relationship with food is incredibly complex. Professor Kelly D. Brownell's lectures include, but are not limited to, an examination of eating disorders, the biology of hunger, and public food policy.

Course Lectures
  • Professor Brownell gives an overview of the course agenda. The psychological issues of food are introduced, such as who defines food, what promotes health, and how the food industry contributes to both debates. The biological issues that will be discussed include how people's hard-wired preferences interact with a modern food environment. The political issues of the class will integrate food production, consumption, marketing, and world politics, with discussion of potential interventions for changing food preferences and food intake patterns in society.

  • This lecture explores how the mismatch between evolution and the current food environment has changed people's relationship to food. Ancient societies had a vastly different food environment compared to modern day societies, which was characterized by unpredictable food supply, the threat of starvation, and a high priority to bank energy. The human brain evolved for this ancient food environment, which creates challenges in the modern food environment where people have unfettered access to the high sugar, high fat, high variety foods that they are programmed to find appealing.

  • This lecture focuses on how people measure nutrition and what it means for health. Professor Brownell reviews methods to track food intake, from a population level to an individual level, emphasizing methods and measurement error as well as portion underestimation. The definition of a calorie and how it is measured are also discussed, as well as people's changing relationships with macronutrients and micronutrients in food and with water.

  • Professor Brownell reviews the challenges inherent in research assessing the link between diet and health, and the challenges of basing a diet upon different dietary recommendations. Fundamental information on nutrition is presented, as well as how our current diet suggests we are eating too much or too little of different classes of sugars and fats.

  • This lecture addresses the complicated relationship between biology and eating. Professor Brownell explores the physiology of taste and eating. Many parts of the body are affected when people eat food, and many biological factors affect what people choose to eat, how much they eat, and the way they regulate their body weight. The experimental methods used to assess how body weight is affected by genes are also reviewed.

  • Ashley Gearhardt gives a guest presentation about the relationship between food and addiction, and how emerging clinical research suggests that eating maps onto a model of addiction. Professor Kelly Brownell reviews how culture affects eating, from what's acceptable to eat to how to eat it. He reviews cultural differences between the American and French food cultures. He then suggests how American values are changing through recent movements which are concerned with the story of food and the features of food before it is consumed.

  • Professor Brownell talks about the situation with world hunger and how it is measured. He reviews the world distribution of hunger, from how many people are affected, to the physiological, psychological, and behavioral consequences of starvation. He reviews how geopolitical issues affect the world food systems in different parts of the world, including climate, war, disease, and refugees.

  • Professor Brownell talks about the situation with world hunger and how it is measured. He reviews the world distribution of hunger, from how many people are affected, to the physiological, psychological, and behavioral consequences of starvation. He reviews how geopolitical issues affect the world food systems in different parts of the world, including climate, war, disease, and refugees.

  • Professor Brownell discusses what the green revolution is and how it has impacted the world scene in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, the green revolution has increased world food productivity and decreased world hunger; on the other hand, it has produced negative environmental effects and failed to benefit all countries involved. Professor Brownell also reviews the green revolution's technology advances including different kinds of irrigation systems, fertilizers, pesticides, and biotechnology, and describes the future of the green revolution in Africa.

  • Professor Brownell reviews the energy costs of modern food tastes. Specifically, he discusses how agribusiness and what people choose to eat has consequences on the depletion of water, land, and fossil fuels, and contributes to global warming. In addition, he considers whether food production and the earth's resources can keep pace with the demands of global population growth, and whether we can enhance sustainability in our food environment.

  • In this lecture, Professor Brownell asks whether modern agriculture is environmentally, culturally, and morally sustainable. First, he explores how genetically modified foods both benefit and hinder world sustainability, such as with the case study of BT corn, and contamination to different parts of the environment. Secondly, he discusses the issue of animal welfare and its relationship with sustainability by exploring how modern food conditions encourage the mass production of meat. Arguments for and against the way animals are raised and eaten are also reviewed. Finally, Professor Brownell identifies shrinking biodiversity as a result of the green revolution and highlights current efforts to combat it.

  • Professor Brownell reviews public health as a profession and explains how it provides a different framework, compared to the traditional medical approach, for tracking diseases and trying to prevent them. Specifically, he explains how public health focuses on community/population (vs. the individual) and prevention (vs. treatment) and discusses which may be better for addressing problems of diet. He provides examples of how different forms of prevention (primary, secondary, tertiary) and the epidemiologic triad are utilized to address disease in public health. Professor Brownell also highlights the importance of science and a public understanding of relevant issues such as standards of proof and various methodologies used in scientific studies.

  • Guest lecturer Dr. Timothy Walsh offers a glimpse into current psychiatric understanding of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. He takes students inside the psychology of an eating disorder and the medical and behavioral complications that patients may experience. Dr. Walsh then explores the issues behind diagnosing, treating, and understanding these disorders from the doctor's perspective as well. He reviews the demographic, physical, psychological characteristics of typical patients who suffer from these disorders, and theorizes that the development of eating disorders comes from multifactorial interactions that make some people more vulnerable than others.

  • Guest Lecturer Dr. Derek Yach, leader in global public health and current Director of Global Health Policy at PepsiCo, offers an inside look into how a member of the food industry balances the needs of the company, consumer, and public health. Dr. Yach offers insight into how PepsiCo is thinking about research and development as a key to transforming the company. In addition, he reviews emerging research and policy trends within the company, highlighting PepsiCo's long-term research goal of delivering science-based health and wellness solutions that satisfy the minds and bodies of consumers.

  • Professor Brownell discusses how economic factors are a profound driver of food choices in both the U.S. and internationally. He reviews the history of food subsidies and how they have made the U.S. an agricultural force but simultaneously changed the current food environment and diet. Furthermore, Professor Brownell explores how economic incentives to purchase highly processed packaged, calorie dense, nutrient poor foods are increasing while incentives to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables are decreasing; and how this imbalance drives overconsumption globally. Professor Brownell also reviews how neighborhood factors and poverty affect access to foods and diet, the global food crisis, and discusses potential interventions to address how economics influence poor diet today.

  • Professor Brownell offers an overview of the food marketing landscape. He asks how much of food marketing is there, what impact it is having, who it's impacting, and what can be done about it, in cases of negative impact. He suggests that food marketing is happening in very large amounts in ways that parents do not have knowledge or control over, and that it is having a highly negative impact on kids. Professor Brownell then describes the many forms of advertising, reviewing the history of character licensing and product placements. He also explores how food marketing is occurring within schools to affect children's diet, and what can or should be done about it.

  • Guest lecturer Professor Rogan Kersh describes the politics of food and nutrition as they relate to obesity. He describes how the U.S. Government has regulated individual behavior in the past, specifically with alcohol, drugs, sex, tobacco, and charts the associated triggers that move these spheres from being purely private to subjects of public regulation. Professor Kersh then connects these public policy movements and compares the triggers to the area of food and obesity. He concludes by suggesting lessons from previous policy areas that can be applied to political action with obesity and food.

  • Professor Brownell discusses the specifics of government and its role in people's food choices. He explores whether and how government should play a role in people's food choices. Professor Brownell highlights the American mindset which couples freedom with issues of personal responsibilities, explores how the framing of the issue influences policy, and proposes a more nuanced view. He then reviews what the current government does on the nutrition program front. He then reviews the three conditions under which business self-regulates, and suggests taxation as a potential government intervention, and a tobacco tax precedent.

  • Professor Stephen Teret discusses how public health strategies and policies can address obesity-related issues. Specifically, he explains how gun violence prevention and motor vehicle related injury prevention can inform multi-level interventions for childhood obesity. In addition, Professor Teret also draws from his own experiences in public health and litigation, and offers advice on what to consider when selecting policies to protect the well-being of populations.

  • Dr. Marlene Schwartz discusses the topic of food policy in schools. She presents the history of federal regulation of the National School Lunch Program, the debate about competitive foods in schools, and describes research on influence of school food on student nutrition. She describes Rudd Center research conducted in collaboration with the Connecticut State Department of Education on the effectiveness of policy changes at the district and state level. She also shares lessons from her personal experiences as a parent advocate in her own school district and describes how her volunteer work in the community informs her academic research.

  • Two guest speakers share their experiences in changing the food environment in their local communities. Melina Shannon-DiPietro describes how the Yale Sustainable Food Project changes people's connection with food at Yale and reflects a growing national and academic trend. Jennifer McTiernan describes the development and goals of CitySeed, highlighting the power of individuals and communities to make change.