June 2011 cover SCAN"St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
June 2011
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Sweet Surrender

Undergraduate researchers explore the doughnut hole of why we eat unhealthy treats.

Would you eat a greasy doughnut if it was offered by your boss?

That's the question Nicole Neumann '11, an exercise and sport science and nutrition major, and Jessica Arechigo '11, an exercise and sport science major, sought to answer in research last summer under the direction of Mark Blegen, associate professor of exercise and sport science.

In April, the pair reported their findings at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research, where they and Blegen also had a chance to brainstorm future studies with Brian Wansink of Cornell University, author of the book Mindless Eating.

Since graduate school, Blegen has been on a quest to answer the question: "Why do we eat?" In the United States, where more than a quarter of the population is obese, Blegen says behavioral studies have shown that "you can't talk to people about what to eat until they know why they eat."

Blegen says we eat to satisfy hunger only 20 percent of the time. Most of us know what we should and should not eat. But the environment — the packaging of food and social influences, for example — has an enormous impact on what we consume.

That brings us to Brian Bruess, vice president for enrollment and dean of student affairs (pictured), who was willing to pedal sugar- and fat-loaded treats to his staff in the interest of research.

Blegen and his students wanted to find out whether the status of the person who offers food has an impact on people's eating habits. Bruess agreed to offer doughnuts to his staff one morning last summer, so Neumann and Arechigo could measure how many accepted his offer and how many turned it down. Later, the seniors circled back to the staff to find out if Bruess's status as their boss influenced them to take the gooey temptations. — Elizabeth Child

From the Heart Dean Brian Bruess holding a platter of doughnuts

Can you predict the results?

Vice President Bruess offered doughnuts to 54 staffers on a weekday morning.

  1. How many staff members declined to take a doughnut?
    a. 33   b. 25   c. 14   d. 6   e. 0

  2. Of those who took a doughnut, what percentage did so because Bruess offered it?
    a. 15%  b. 25%  c. 55%  d. 70%

  3. Among staffers who took a doughnut, how many threw it away when Bruess wasn't looking?
    a. 0   b. 6   c. 14   d. 25   e. 33

View the answer key »