The University of California’s Sugar, Stress, Environment & Weight Initiative (SSEW) is hosting its 11th annual symposium – “Hungry for Change: Food Insecurity, Stress & Obesity” – on the UCLA campus on Wednesday October 25th. Spaces are still available and the event will be live-streamed. You can also take part via #SSEW2017 and #Hungry4Change. The event aims to connect scientists, policy-makers, students and communities to create change.

I had an opportunity to chat with some of the researchers whose work will be featured at the conference. Scroll on down to learn more.


Learning more about food insecurity from researchers 

Dr. Elissa Epel

Elissa Epel is a Professor at University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where she also serves as Director of COAST (Center for Obesity, Assessment, Study & Treatment), which hosts the SSEW Initiative.

Laura Schmidt is also a Professor at UCSF, and is Co-Director of SSEW, as well as a lead on UC President Napolitano’s Global Food Initiative and Healthy Campus Network.

Dr. Laura Schmidt

They answered some questions for UC Food Observer about the work at COAST, the SSEW Symposium, and critical issues, including the relationship between stress and sugar consumption; obesity; and food insecurity.






Q: Why is SSEW focusing on food insecurity?

Dr. Epel:  COAST is a center that brings together an interdisciplinary group of scientists, with research that spans from fat cells to neurons, to communities and policies.  We have been meeting for the past decade, and it has become increasingly urgent to share our discoveries and insights with the public, rather than just to other researchers. We see the context of food insecurity as a complex issue we can help understand and dismantle.

UC researchers have drilled down on understanding stress pathways – stress drives us to eat sugars, stress packs the fat into the intra-abdominal area, and liver, where it causes metabolic disease. The stress of financial strain, and not having enough food is a perfect storm for obesity. There are times when the research is so compelling, it’s time to reach the community – the policy makers, the activists, the public who cares. It is partly public opinion that drives change. Policies often follow opinion.

This year we are making our symposium open to the public. We have seats for those who wish to attend, and we will live stream nationally.  People interested in this area will both understand the complex issues, what needs to be done, and what they can do locally. We want people to understand the hardship that food insecurity poses.  And that it can be solved by implementing the solutions we know that work.

We have organized a panel that explores all the ways that psychological stress shapes our life and our bellies. We will offer tips for individuals as well, since most people feel stress, eat too much sugar, and feel their bellies expanding with age.  Average glucose tolerance levels are getting worse. We also have a panel that dives deep into hunger among students. Our last panel will offer high level solutions as well as things individuals can do.

Dr. Schmidt:  What’s key is to find policy solutions to food insecurity.  We can’t let this problem worsen—especially not on our campuses.  We’ve invited food justice advocates, leaders of UC President Napolitano’s Global Food Initiative who are solving food insecurity on our campuses, and we’ve partnered with the UCLA Resnick Center for Food Law and Policy, and UCLA’s David Geffen Medical School, to think through novel solutions to this problem from the local to global levels.


Q: It’s counterintuitive to some that hunger and obesity are linked. Can you explain the factors that contribute to both existing simultaneously?


Dr. Epel: People who have a strained food budget are forced to buy the food that is most obesogenic, i.e., high in calories with excessive sugars, and excessively low in nutrients. Further, there is an access issue: it is processed food that is available in many neighborhoods. Lastly, food insecurity also makes people prone to binge eating – consuming huge amounts when food is available. It’s a terrible situation and most people,  if put in these circumstances of poverty, would end up undernourished and overweight.

Dr. Schmidt: The problem stems from a food environment that makes it logistically difficult and expensive to eat a healthy diet. In our current environment, only the “haves” can afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and to eat home-cooked meals. The “have nots” suffer from a disproportionate burden of obesity-related cardiometabolic diseases like diabetes and heart disease as a result.

This is not a problem of individuals who lack self-control. It’s the problem of a society that makes it difficult to afford and access healthy foods, while saturating the environment with cheap, tempting foods loaded with sugar and fat. People all over the world—especially in low-income countries—are getting fatter and suffering more from obesity-related diseases. The only real way to turn this ship around is through policy reforms that change the food environment.


Editor’s Note: In addition to speaking to Drs. Epel and Schmidt, I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Cindy Leung –  a former post-doctoral researcher at UCSF and current Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Her work focuses on understanding the risk of obesity in food-insecure children…and the hidden role that stress plays.

Q: You’re presenting at the SSEW Symposium…what will you be sharing?

Dr. Cindy Leung

Dr. Leung: I’ve spent the last two years trying to understand how food insecurity affects diet, health, obesity and chronic disease. Many researchers are studying associations between food insecurity and higher rates of obesity in women, higher levels of diabetes and chronic disease, etc. It’s also important to understand why these associations exist.

One thought is that food insecurity might be a proxy for poverty…and that associations stemming from poverty and food insecurity are a marker.

Another hypothesis is that it’s impacted by the [food] environment, i.e., food insecure people don’t have good access to quality food. The food environment argument is simply not that strong. We’ve seen experiments where supermarkets have opened in food deserts and it doesn’t appear to magically improve the quality of diet. So the poor food environment doesn’t explain all of these associations – but stress might.

People who are food insecure are certainly stressed on a number of fronts. They might be worrying about not having the same food their friends have if they are a child. They might be worrying about hunger. Hunger changes how you think about food, it changes the way you eat.

Our first project focused on children. We also interviewed parents separately. There’s been work looking at food security among college students through the UC Global Food initiative. It seemed like a natural extension of our work to study the stress of food insecurity among college students.

In my presentation at the SSEW Symposium, I’ll be highlighting quotes from participants about stress related to food insecurity from our qualitative studies. There’s so much quantitative data available. As an epidemiologist, I’m used to looking at that. But, from a policy perspective, combining qualitative data and quantitative data can be more impactful. 


Editor’s Note: COAST Executive Director Samantha Schilf shared some additional information about the conference with me:

Samantha Schilf

The is an intersectional conference. And we’re hoping to answer this question: How do we make meaningful change, not just with the great science, but in impacting people on a personal level?

There will be lots of research and ways for our general audience to engage with the program. There will be a call to action so that people at the event – or participating in the live stream – can make a commitment to taking meaningful action…whether they are a researcher, a student, a community health advocate, staff at a non-profit, or just starting to understand the field…We’ll be inviting people to consider the ways in which they can see themselves creating change.

Event highlights: 

Facebook Live panel with Drs. Robert Lustig, Kelly Brownell & special guests

  • When: 10/25/2017 3:00 p.m.-3:30 p.m. PST
  • Who: Drs. Kelly Brownell, Rob Lustig, Cristin Kearns, and Breanna Hawkins of the LA Food Policy Council, will discuss the Sugar Industry’s tactics and effects on public health, particularly in food insecure and low-income communities.  Anyone can join the Facebook live and ask questions directly to panelists!
  • Where: On the SSEW Science Facebook page
  • How to Join: Go to the SSEW facebook page, follow, and join at 3:00 p.m.


Editor’s Note: Check out this video…it features Dr. Laura Schmidt explaining why it’s such a challenge for us to stop eating unhealthy foods. It runs about 13 minutes and was delivered at TEDMED in 2016.