Food for Thought Course Gives Students New Concepts to Chew On

By Cathy Cruise

As the holidays loom large, thoughts naturally turn to celebrating and, of course, eating. One Mason professor explores the topic year-round—from its growth and processing, to its marketing and availability, to its quality and its pleasures. Her new special topics in psychology course, Food for Thought: The Psychology of Eating, has her students pondering these issues, as well.

Mason behavioral psychologist Doris Bitler Davis, whose background is in the area of choice, developed the course in response to her belief that, in a world of widely varied interests, food is an essential and inescapable common denominator.

Mason psychology professor Doris Bitler Davis (center) with her Food for Thought class at the Southside dining facility. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

“The one behavior we all engage in is eating,” she says. “It’s the one thing we have to do–can’t decide not to. But it’s also something we have choices about. And the choices for eating behavior, at least in our country, are almost limitless.”

Bitler Davis’s class begins with an overview of the history of agriculture—how humans went from hunter-gatherers to farmers and how that continues to impact us today. From there, the class tackles matters of sustainability, pesticides, treatment of farm workers, the meat industry, and daily food choices involving grocery stores and farmer’s markets.

One recent class centered on the marketing of food, and how branding and commercials influence consumer choices, particularly choices made by children. “There’s been a lot of research on that lately,” Bitler Davis says, “with all the concerns about childhood obesity and the market for junk foods and processed foods for kids.”

Finally, the class delves into more specific areas of personal choice. “We move from the very general—from how we became omnivores, the Paleolithic diet—to very specific things about individual choice,” Bitler Davis says. “How do we develop our own tastes? What things do we find appealing or disgusting? Who is prone to eating disorders or obesity, and why?”

The course is entirely project based, with students completing at least one project a week and more than a dozen per semester. Some are simple assignments—like comparing nutritional labels in grocery stores—while others are more involved, such as keeping a semester-long food diary to analyze individual eating habits and choices.

Mason psychology professor Doris Bitler Davis (far right) with students from her Food for Thought class inside the Southside dining facility on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

One of the larger projects involved food shopping on a budget. Students were given an imaginary family to feed, and although they were also provided a fairly generous spending limit, many still found it challenging. Bitler Davis recalls one student who said this was something she wished she’d been taught in high school.“She said, ‘I’m surprised I got into my 20s before I realized what I’ll be facing down the road and what other people do face.’”

Mason psychology major Elizabeth Coalter says that because the topic of disordered eating first sparked her interest in the field, she found the title of this course particularly intriguing. “When I found out that Dr. Bitler Davis would be teaching it, I was that much more interested in taking the course,” she says. “This is the fourth class I have taken with her. I really like her teaching style and find that the courses she teaches are ones that pique my interest.”

Coalter says among the most interesting things she’s studied so far are the “conflicts of interest of people on government regulation committees—even in the Supreme Court—when it comes to the food industry,” and how companies patent genes being used in the seeds they sell.

During one Food for Thought class session, Professor Bitler took the students to the Farmers Market held on campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

“The whole idea of patenting a living thing blows my mind,” Coalter says, “especially since there is no way to control factors such as wildlife and wind that might carry that gene into a competing farmer’s field. ”

Learning about the corn industry was also eye-opening for Coalter, who says she discovered how a surplus of corn in this country has led to its being added in mass amounts to the products we buy. “So many farmers are growing it that we’re feeding it to cows whose natural diet does not consist of corn,” she says. “It fattens them up nicely, but the corn gets stuck in their bodies and causes infections, which spread because they are being raised in feedlots and are so close to one another. That is why the beef in our country has so many antibiotics now.”

Bitler Davis says she originally developed the class as a synthesis course to bring not just a psychological approach to food choices and eating behavior, but to incorporate more interdisciplinary perspectives as well. Her vision paid off, as she is expecting full enrollment when she teaches the course again in the spring.

“Apparently the students have been talking it up to their friends and there’s interest out there,” she says. “They’ve been extremely engaged with all of it so far. I’ve been really pleased.”

The feeling is mutual for Nicole Liehr, another psychology major, who enrolled in the class to receive credit for her degree and to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the American food system. “Awareness is the key to this course,” Liehr says. “If you are passionate about making food choices, you will learn more and add to the course. If you are passionate about things other than food, you will become passionate about food.”

Coalter admits to being surprised by the impact the course has had on her outside of class. “I have changed my eating habits since I started this class,” she says. “Learning where my food comes from changed my attitude toward the food industry in general, as well as what I choose to consume.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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