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Interview with Dr. Christopher Gustafson

Journalist: Amy Stewart

AMY: Hello and welcome back to SciSection! I'm your journalist Amy Stewart, for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Christopher Gustafson, an associate professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a researcher that uses concepts from behavioral economics to explain the complex relationship people have with food. Thank you so much for coming on the show today, Dr. Gustafson!

DR. GUSTAFSON: My pleasure, thanks for having me!

AMY: My first question is to just give a little background to our audience about your educational and career background that brought you to where you are today?

DR. GUSTAFSON: So I actually am only about 40 miles from where I grew up. I grew up on a corn and soybean farm in rural Nebraska. And I came to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for my undergraduate degree. And I was initially going to do a program, a major in the college of arts and sciences but coming from a highschool where my graduating class was 18 people, when I got to that department which was very large and pretty impersonal, it just didn’t feel like a good fit. So we have an agricultural campus which is separated a little bit from many of the other majors buildings. So I came out to the agricultural economics department which was another adventure. I was kind of interested in politics and policy at that point in time and a big part of economics is policy and policy analysis and so I moved out here. I got my bachelors here, went to Italy for a year to work on a research project and went to graduate school in California at the University of California-Davis in the agricultural and resourcing department there. I did a post-doc for about three years in Tanzania and then I got a job here and came back essentially where I’d started.

AMY: We have a lot of undergrad students that listen to our podcast and I think that really shows how you can start off in one palace and get all of these experiences and sometimes you end up back in the same place or sometimes you end up somewhere completely different so that's a very unique case I think. So for my next question, because you do a lot of research about like I said, the relationship people have with food and the choices and decisions people make, I wanted to pick your brain about fad diets, some examples being like the carnivore diet, or fruitarian, or even gluten-free sometimes can be considered a fad diet and I wanted to know what your thoughts are on these.

DR. GUSTAFSON: Yeah so I have done a little bit of research in this area. I have with co-authors a couple of papers on the gluten-free diet specifically. And I’ve heard of a number of the other diets. We actually have a paper that we need to get finished up and sent out that’s looking at sort of factors that predict what makes someone more or less likely to follow a fad diet or to try a fad diet. So we’ve got a bit more going on in that area. But you know I think, I don’t know that they’re great for people. So the gluten free diet you mentioned, obviously for some people, that is a critical diet that they really need to follow, so anyone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivities, really needs to be avoiding gluten. But I think apparently it became attractive to other people so that was picked up and kind of promoted by people with influence. So I think there’s still a lot left to be done, there isn't actually a whole lot of research out there on fad diets and what makes people follow fad diets. From the research that we have done, there are demographic characteristics that seem to be associated with being more likely to follow some of these diets. But really the sorts of things that in the research that we have published really kind of predicted whether someone was on a gluten free diet were things like: beliefs. And so in the survey we did, we asked questions about people's beliefs about how healthy a gluten free product was compared to its gluten containing conventional counterpart, how nutritional they thought it was and even dug down into the specific nutrients like fats and calories. And so people who had more positive beliefs about the gluten free diet were significantly more likely to be on a gluten-free diet which I think makes sense. Where they came up with those beliefs is a little bit less clear, we did ask people about the sources of information that they had used or that has sort of directed them to a gluten-free diet or caused them to think about following a gluten-free diet.

And we kind of have the hypothesis that social media was going to play a big role, but it didn’t really. And the main sources of information that lead people to follow a gluten-free direct were friends and family sort of suggesting it.

Even more so if it had been suggested to them by a health professional like a physician or a registered dietician that had a strong influence. But the biggest influence was a category that we threw in called “own research” or “I did my own research on the topic” which I think is pretty intriguing. And we didn't anticipate that so we didn't build in additional questions to try to investigate that. But you know my interpretation is that you know they maybe encountered the idea somewhere, so maybe they saw it on social media or a friend or a family member suggested it. But then they went off and looked at the information themselves and that really convinced them that they should be following that. So these were all people who didn't have a diagnosis of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So yeah, I think there are a lot of factors that seem to go into this.

AMY: That's very interesting how you said social media didn't play as big of a role as you kind of anticipated. It seems it more kind of sparked the idea but with this own research, whatever they consider research, I feel like it has to be pretty broad. Did they read academic journals or did they read a blog post or was it just more social media. It's just very interesting where people are getting their information from.

DR. GUSTAFSON: Yes, I agree. I’m guessing it’s probably not academic journals.

AMY: I would assume that as well.

DR. GUSTAFSON: I could be wrong about that.

AMY: My next question is, do you think there are some negative implications of fad diets? There’s some obvious health implications especially when you're looking at really restrictive diets I’m sure. What do you think other health or non-health related implications could be of this restrictive eating?

DR. GUSTAFSON: I really haven't spent a whole lot of time thinking of non-health implications. I think there are some clear health implications at least in sort of the time period leading up to now for gluten- free, going back to the gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products have not had the same nutritional profile that conventional products have, they're having to use a number of alternative things to make up for the lack of gluten and its ability to be cohesive and make the product appealing to people and those alternative non-gluten containing substitutes don’t have the same nutrients. So even people who have celiac disease and have to follow that diet for health reasons need to be thinking about finding sources of nutrients they're not getting from gluten-free products. I guess for non-health related implications I think could be, first thing that comes to mind is that there may be some social isolation effects. You know if you have a group of friends and suddenly you're eating a very restrictive diet you might not be able to go out with them to the places where they're going. And if it becomes an important part of your identity which I think can happen to some of them. If you really believe that your circle of friends are making a grave mistake in continuing to eat a traditional diet that you all had been eating before, that might create some friction in your social group as well.

AMY: I definitely agree with what you said about the health aspect of it. I’m vegetarian myself and I don’t typically err on the side of finding meat replacements like fake meat because you’re not really getting the nutrients you’d be getting when you're eating meat. So I try to find things that have the same things meat have but just no meat. So I feel like if a person is gluten-free and eating something that typically has gluten but has been substituted with all these other things to make it taste like the same thing just without gluten, you're not really getting any of the benefits, you’re still missing out on quite a bit.

DR. GUSTAFSON: Yeah and like for someone who’s following a vegetarian diet this idea of plant based meat substitutes has been, I think, in the social conversation a lot in that last couple of years and my understanding is that some of those products that are plant based but try to really replicate meat in the experience of eating them, are really not that healthy for the individual. I mean maybe it's – and I'm not saying that this is the case because I don't know – maybe it is better environmentally because it's plant based and so negative impacts of animal production might not be there. But you might not be getting the benefits you assume you are because you’re eating a plant based product.

AMY: It definitely seems a little like greenwashing because we assume maybe it's better for the environment if it doesn’t have gluten in it or it's better for the environment if it doesn't have meat in it. But if it's filled with 500 different ingredients that are all from different parts of the globe, it’s not necessarily more environmentally friendly or health friendly.

DR. GUSTAFSON: That certainly might be true, so I guess I don’t know if I would call that greenwashing because in my mind that would be sort of purposefully making yourself feel better about some action. Whereas I think a lot of this might just be ignorance and assumptions about things being healthier when in fact they aren't; and all of us having limited time and cognitive resources to be able to do the research necessary to actually verify the things we're doing are better.

AMY: So, for my next question. When I was reading about your work and research I saw you did a lot of work in health disparities while you were working in Tanzania. I would love to hear a little bit more about that.

DR. GUSTAFSON: Yeah so I guess the thing that I would sort of say is a lead into that is my work that has been most relevant to health disparities had been with specific minority communities, where those studies have not had a general population sort of comparisons built in. So I think that the disparities are there but there is not a clear comparison group to compare within the research I’ve actually been doing. But in Tanzania I did work with pastoralist communities that are really sort of some of the most precarious positions of groups within Tanzanian society. They have traditionally been highly mobile, moving around following pastures and resources for their animals, due to increasing human populations their ability to do that has been restricted significantly. And so they are at a disadvantage and have become increasingly sedentarized. In the US, I have also worked with the Rosebud Lakota Tribe in South Dakota early on in my time here. And again that's another minority group that's significantly disadvantaged in terms of the resources that they have and the way that they've been treated historically. And so we worked in collaboration with entities in their tribal government to try to make the food environment healthier as well as to promote healthy choices within that environment. So I've worked predominantly, I’d say, in those two domains. Those are two pretty different, the Tanzanian context and the US context are pretty different in a lot of ways. And so I can talk about Tanzania then. After living there three years we - my wife and I were both there at the same time, she's also a scientist and so we've got a lot of fond memories of Tanzania. So what our project there looked at was within a marginalized population that's heavily dependent on their own production of largely animals, we actually worked with three ethnic groups that are pastoral. One is traditionally been agro-pastoralist, so they have tradition of raising and preserving sweet potatoes and grains and number of non-animal food products. And so I think they are in a little bit better position to deal with the encroachment of more mainstream populations on lands that would have been available for grazing. The other two populations were traditionally purely pastoralist and have turned to mostly growing corn for home consumption. But you know being traditionally pastoralist and relying on predominantly cattle, sheep, and goats for food sources, their traditional food consumption patterns don’t consider other sources of food that you know might be available to them now in one place. Things like fish in local waterways that would be nutritionally beneficial but not traditional. And so we worked to develop culturally appropriate livestock health messaging also human health and nutrition messaging. So we had a four year long project that we did with them and sort of another additionally questions that we throw in there like about male and female control over productive assets and how that related to household food security, women’s dietary diversity, and other outcome so of children having the opportunity of going to school because you have to pay school fees and for uniforms and stuff like that for kids to be able to go to school. So we’re working on some of the data we have, some publications put out there, including some of the work about male vs female control of productive assets and how that relates to dietary diversity and food security within the household, which is pretty interesting.

Where perhaps not surprising when women have assets that they have control over, those outcomes are better at the household level and for the women themselves. And then we also did some qualitative work directly asking them to talk about what they used those resources for. And so they talked about you now about using those assets they controlled to supplement household food sources if those were low, which you know reinforces the relationships we were finding from the quantitative data but also explicitly mentioned things like school fees and clothes for the kids and medicine for the family.

It's a very interesting study and it’s great working in these communities.

AMY: That’s fascinating how you kind of just started by assessing how they source their food, whether they are a pastoral community and how that all trickles down and affects everything else from gender disparities, how the children fair, and income and all that. I mean it makes sense how it would all be intertwined but it’s very interesting to see that you’re actually researching the effects in a proper way, very cool. Alright, I think that’s all the time we have for today. But thank you so much for coming on the show, Dr. Gustafson, it was very interesting to hear your takes and the research you've done on diets like the gluten-free diet and it’s fascinating to hear the work you went and did not only just in North America but also in different continents. It was very impressive.

DR. GUSTAFSON: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

AMY: That’s it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check our podcast available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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