Date published: 9/21/2012

The United States along with much of the world is facing a health crisis. Chronic diseases have replaced acute diseases as the main health threats that face Americans, and America’s aging population exacerbates this crisis. What can we do to improve health in our country—and what type of research is needed to help us find a solution?

Any solution will require multidisciplinary science that integrates behavior and biology. This is one of the areas in which UCLA's Health Psychology program excels, and Dr. Tomiyama's research embraces this multidisciplinary approach. Her research takes place at the intersection of eating behavior, psychological stress, and cellular aging, and her work spans macro factors like socioeconomic status to micro factors like telomere shortening.

Receiving her Ph.D. in Social and Health Psychology from UCLA in 2009, Dr. Tomiyama was first a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at UCSF and UC Berkeley and then an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Her research is designed to test questions such as: Is "comfort food" really comforting? Is dieting stressful? Does stress age our immune system and, if so, how? Can calorie restriction reverse this type of aging? Who are our society's most successful dieters, and what can we learn from them? Is stress to blame for racial disparities in obesity? Highlights from Dr. Tomiyama's three main areas of research are below.

Eating Behavior and Stress

Following stress, humans tend not only to eat more but also to increase their consumption of high fat and high sugar "comfort" foods. Yet little is known about whether comfort foods are truly comforting—not just emotionally, but biologically. Based on rodent studies showing the stress-dampening ability of sugary, fatty foods, Dr. Tomiyama and her colleagues conducted the first human study to examine this process, and they found that comfort food eating in high stress individuals is indeed linked to lower activation of human biological stress systems.

Stress and Cellular Aging

Just as shoelaces need protective plastic tips on the end, so too do chromosomes. Telomeres are those protective DNA structures at the tips of chromosomes. As organisms age, telomeres get shorter and shorter, until they reach a critical point, and then the cells go into an arrested state. Psychological stress has been linked to shorter telomeres, but how might stress get "under the skin" to accelerate cellular aging? Dr. Tomiyama and colleagues have taken some of the first steps to understand this process, and they have identified the key roles of both a psychological phenomenon—threat perception—and a biological one—the stress hormone cortisol—in potentially triggering this chain reaction.

Cellular Aging and Eating Behavior

In non-human organisms, one of the only known interventions to extend lifespan is caloric restriction. Might this be the case in humans as well? To answer this question, Dr. Tomiyama is studying a unique group of long-term calorie restrictors who have restricted their caloric intake for decades. She is not only looking at their aging markers, such as telomere length; but she is also very carefully characterizing their psychological profiles. This is the first-ever study to do so, and the results will help inform interventions in the field of healthy eating research where long-term eating behavior change has been elusive.

To learn more about Dr. Tomiyama's research check-out her lab at http://www.dishlab.org

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