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Kelly Brownell, PhD

If Yale University psychologist Kelly Brownell, PhD, has his way, super-size sodas will be a relic of the past. Regulating the size of sodas is just one of the policy changes Brownell supports based on his extensive research on the causes of America's obesity epidemic.

Brownell — who brought his message to millions on the popular HBO miniseries "The Weight of the Nation" — answers your questions about the psychology behind obesity.

What would it take for New York's plans to ban super-size sugary drinks to go nationwide?

—Rachel Manes, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

What happens in New York City matters. History shows that other cities, then states, and finally the federal government take action once some courageous player goes first. I expect initiatives such as limiting portion sizes, restricting children's food marketing and taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages will be routine in a few years.

How can we educate children about weight issues and interest them in adopting a healthy lifestyle?

—Scott Parrigon, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

Educating children is important, but to do enough education to counteract the enormous marketing budgets of the food industry would be very costly. It is more cost-effective to change the conditions that are contributing to the problems — to change "default" conditions in the environment in ways that support, rather than undermine, personal responsibility and healthy choices.

To what degree do you agree with the view of the 2007 book "Good Calories, Bad Calories," which concludes that obesity is triggered by not eating enough quality food?


Over the years there have been dozens of theories about how different categories of foods (e.g., fats vs. carbohydrates) should be emphasized in attempts to deal with obesity. Time after time, these theories seem not to lead anywhere productive, and the field returns to the notion that obesity is caused by overconsumption of calories and declining levels of activity. With that said, it would be helpful to decrease consumption of categories of foods that contribute disproportionately to obesity (e.g., sugar-sweetened beverages) and increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

What advice do you have for aspiring psychologists who want to focus on eating disorders and obesity?

—Daniella Davidra, Simon Fraser University

There is tremendous human need with both eating disorders and obesity. One of the most important ideas I try to convey to students is to ask research questions that will have a potential impact on policy or practice, and in the clinical setting to remain up to date on published work and integrate new developments into practice. We call these studies "strategic" research. It begins with the question of who are the people in a position to create social change (e.g., legislators, an attorney general, the press) and then determining what research will be most impactful in their world. An example would be documenting the impact of children's food marketing so the public is educated and legislators have a basis for making regulatory decisions.

Read more about Brownell's work in the December 2012 Monitor.