The Marshmallow Test of Life: A Lesson in Willpower and Self-Control

Back in the 1960s, Dr. Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments that have since become fundamental to our understanding of developmental psychology and the implications of self-control.  The results of Mischel’s famous “Stanford Marshmallow Test” have provided insight into the link between delayed gratification (i.e. self-control) and “success” later in life.  In the experiments, a treat (often a marshmallow or cookie) was given to a child on the condition that if they could wait 15 minutes to eat it, they would be given two treats.  The tempting treats were placed on a plate in front of the children and the experimenters left the room.  The children were left alone in the room, with no distractions or advice from outsiders. As you might guess, the majority of children ate the marshmallow before the 15 minutes were up. 

Fast forward. Researchers followed up with the children who are now teenagers.  They found the same participants who exhibited greater self-control when they were children (those who waited long enough to receive the second marshmallow) were now more “successful” as teenagers, as defined by several metrics. The kids who chose delayed gratification in the marshmallow test overall, had higher SAT scores and were described by their parents as being more competent.  Again, researchers followed up with same participants who were now adults, in their 40s and found that those with more willpower as children, now displayed the same increased amount of self-control as adults.  Additionally, when presented with alluring temptations, adults with more self-control showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (the region of the brain that controls decision making), than those with lower self-control.  Those with less self-control exhibited more activity in the ventral striatum region of the brain, which is a region of the brain thought to be associated with desires and rewards.   

A lesson in self-control/delayed gratification taught to us by children, but the implications reach much further than that. As adults, we are faced with our own version of the marshmallow experiment all day, every day.  Our devices beg us to stop what we’re doing and devote our attention to them instead.  How often do we complete a task without checking our phone, Facebook, or email at least once?  Our devices are a new form of the ever so tempting marshmallow. 

Further, while some things change, some remain the same. As adults, not only are we tempted by our electronic devices and constant, “always on” information feeds, we are still faced with the similar temptations as the children in Mischel’s experiment.  Unhealthy foods are more available and abundant than ever.  Fighting the urge to give in to temptation is a daily battle we face at almost every corner of our environment, including the grocery store, our work environments, and social settings. And, the more we are exposed to these enticing temptations, the more likely we are to give in to them.  Although it differs from person to person, willpower does have its limits. 

However, where there is a will, there is a way, as they say. If we can harness our inner discipline and coach ourselves to wait for the delayed, but equally as good, reward…then we are more likely to accomplish our goals.  Here’s a few thoughts on what we can do:       

  • Assess the situation.  Do you have trouble going longer than 5 minutes without checking your phone or email? How often do find yourself indulging in foods that you know are unhealthy? Are you constantly distracted by social media? These are all good questions to consider when evaluating your lifestyle.  Acknowledging that you are struggling with such distractions is the first step in problem solving. 
  • Make things easier for yourself.  Set guidelines and limits that you think are reasonable to start with and do your best to follow them. As you accomplish your goals, you may want to create more challenging goals over time if you think they would benefit your productivity and health. For example, if seeing your phone on your desk is a constant reminder to use it, then try placing your phone in a drawer. The same goes for social media. If social media is reducing your productivity, then make a point to disable your phone notifications and don’t open the webpage on your computer browser, except for at regular intervals you may set for yourself. Thus, the “always on” feature becomes an “at your will” feature.  
  • Develop a healthy relationship with your mind and body.  We are our own greatest work in progress. By focusing on the foundations of a healthy lifestyle (healthy diet, exercise, and sleep), we are more focused and less tempted to seek out the immediate gratification that also serves as a great distraction.  Think about it, we are more likely to make unhealthy food choices when we are low on sleep, preoccupied with something (e.g. constant incoming information), and in a hurry. Take the time to prioritize your health and wellbeing, set some general guidelines for yourself, and you’ll be amazed at your own progress.     

      Image Source


Superfood Series: Part 3

Spinach and Kale

We couldn’t decide which one to choose because they are both so comparably amazing!  These two are probably two of the biggest super food all-stars in the whole series!

Nutritionally, they are both rock stars.  Taste wise, they differ greatly.  Kale has a more distinctive taste that some people find bitter. The texture is also thicker and tougher than spinach. The denser texture is perfect for baking kale chips or making salads ahead of time. Kale salad won’t get soggy like most other greens when you add dressing. 

With a more subtle taste and a softer crunch, spinach is often the choice for fresh salads, steaming, and dressing sandwiches.  Spinach is a tried and true health food that has stood the test of time.  Kale is newer to the scene, but we think it’s here to stay.  Now, on to the facts.  

*RDA= Recommended Daily Allowance

  1. Vitamin A.  Both kale and spinach are a great source of this fat soluble vitamin (98.3 % RDA kale; 105% RDA spinach) which plays a role in the anti-inflammatory process.  One form, beta-carotene, functions as an antioxidant which helps protect cells from the damaging and sometimes cancer causing free radicals. Vitamin A also plays a crucial role in eye health, particularly the ability to see in low light. 
  2. Happy Brain.  We need vitamin C (71% RDA kale; 24% RDA spinach) to convert the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is related to depression.  Out of balance serotonin levels can affect mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior.
  3. Bone Strength. Vitamin K (1,180% RDA kale; 987% RDA spinach) plays a vital role in bone health.  The body uses vitamin K to regulate calcium.  Therefore, low levels of vitamin K have been linked to low levels of calcium in bones.  This condition can lead to osteoporosis and/or a buildup of calcium in the arteries, which can lead to coronary heart disease. 
  4. Digestion.  One serving of spinach or kale provides 1 gram and 3 grams of fiber, respectively. When you take into the consideration the caloric content of these superfoods (23 kcal and 49 kcal, respectively), that’s a lot of fiber for a few calories.  Insoluble fiber found in both spinach and kale aids in digestion because it is not fully digested by the body.  As it passes through the digestive tract it acts as a sort of scrub brush of the intestines, helping to push food through the system on its way out and therefore aiding with regular bowel movements.
  5. Weight Loss. Spinach and kale are both low in calories which can be helpful for those trying to lose weight.  One serving of spinach has only 23 calories, but 3 grams of protein.  One cup of kale has only 49 calories but 4 grams of protein. Their high fiber content will leave you feeling fuller, longer.  Don’t forget they are chock full of many other vitamins and minerals.  Whether in a salad or steamed, fresh or frozen, these two salad greens are a great component of any weight loss or maintenance plan.
  6. Diabetes. Kale and spinach both contain an antioxidant known as alpha-lipoic acid, which has been shown to lower glucose levels, increase insulin sensitivity, and prevent oxidative stress-induced changes in patients with diabetes. Studies on alpha-lipoic acid have also shown decreases in peripheral neuropathy and/or autonomic neuropathy in people with diabetes. Not to mention their high fiber and protein content per serving means they cause a slow and steady rise in blood sugar which is ideal for people with diabetes.  
  7. Prenatal and Pregnancy.  Folate (49% RDA spinach; 24% RDA kale) helps prevent neural tube deficiencies such as incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord.  Their high vitamin A content also supports healthy embryonic growth such as development of the heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, and bones, and the circulatory, respiratory, and central nervous systems.  Vitamin A is particularly essential for women who are about to give birth, because it helps with postpartum tissue repair.
  8. Heart Disease.  Both kale and spinach contain omega-3 fatty acids which can help fight heart disease and chronic illness.  They are both also a moderate source of potassium which has been shown to help prevent heart disease and reduce blood pressure, especially as part of a diet rich in calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein.  One cup provides around 15% of the RDA for potassium for both kale and spinach; and as we’ve already learned, on a calorie-by-calorie basis, both kale and spinach are also a good source of fiber and protein. 



Health Food Phonies (and what to eat instead)

It’s official, the peak of the so called “health craze” may very well be upon us.  There are more “health” foods on the market today than ever before.  For example, organic food sales increased 11.5% in 2013, making it a $35.1 billion dollar industry- and sales are predicted to grow another 12% in 2014.  It’s not just specialty natural food stores that are carrying these “health” foods, either.  In 2010, large chain retailers like Walmart and Kroger surpassed natural foods based retail stores in sales of natural and organic food. Traditional chains now own 54% of the natural and organic market. 

What does all of this mean for the consumer? It means that there are more food choices than ever, most of which are surrounded by a health food halo.  When manufactures begin to brand and advertise their foods as health foods, it creates a problem.  The most apparent issue being that, most of these claims are one dimensional or just simply untrue.  Yes, this means that “all natural” cookies are still, in fact, full of sugar and fat.  If it seems like it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  This creates a tricky situation in that people are unknowingly purchasing these supposed health foods under the assumption they are making the nutritionally optimal choice.  Let’s bust through the health food halo and take a look at some of the most common health food phonies and identify what to try instead.   

Vitamin enhanced water/drinks.  Most of these drinks are high in unnecessary sugar.  One popular brand has 31g of sugar per 20 oz. serving. That’s more sugar than is recommended to have in an entire day (25g). Just as a reminder, a diet that is higher in sugar is more likely to lead to heart disease, insulin resistance, diabetes, cancer, and weight gain.

Try this instead.  Simply drinking water and eating a healthy diet should be a sufficient source of vitamins and minerals. If you really want an extra boost of vitamins and minerals, have a piece of nutrient dense food like blueberries or kale.

Granola Bars.  One of the most well-known and the quintessential outdoorsman’s snack, granola bars have long touted a reputation among health foodies.  Most are made of oats, nuts, and fruit. So, you may be wondering why they are on the phony list? Unfortunately, in addition to their core ingredients, most granola bars are loaded with sugar and fat. Check the ingredients label and you’ll likely see chocolate, high fructose corn syrup, and many other artificial ingredients. 

Try this instead.  You’re better off to make your own granola from whole oats, nuts, seeds, and non-sugar sweetened dried fruit. If you’re not into making your own or would just rather buy something, make sure to look for a granola bar that has a small ingredients list, at least 4 grams of fiber, no more than 8 grams of added sugar, and is around 150 calories per serving. 

Flavored Yogurt.  We’re not talking about the plain type.  We’re talking about the kind of yogurt that has fruit on the bottom, sprinkles on the top, and some of the “fruit flavored” varieties as well.  These kinds of yogurt are usually high in sugar and lower in protein than plain yogurt. 

Try this instead.  Plain yogurt with fresh fruit.  You can also throw in some spices to make your own delicious combinations (i.e. apples and cinnamon).  Plain Greek yogurt is an even healthier choice. It packs nearly twice as much protein and half as much sugar in the same amount of calories as regular yogurt.  Bonus:  Greek yogurt undergoes a process to remove the liquid whey, lactose, and sugar, making it the best choice for people with lactose sensitivity and those monitoring their blood sugar.

Instant flavored oatmeal.  Normally oatmeal is a great choice, but instant flavored oatmeal differs nutritionally from its steel cut oats relative.  Manufacturers often add a very large amount of sugar and other ingredients to instant flavored oatmeal.  Another difference lies in the glycemic index, which is a measurement of how quickly a food increases your blood sugar within a two-hour period. Because instant oatmeal has been processed to cook more quickly, it is also broken down and digested more quickly by your body, giving it a higher glycemic index. Eating a lower glycemic index diet may help improve your cholesterol ratios as well.

Try this instead:  Throw some fruit and spices in with steel cut oats (pumpkin pie spice and pumpkin puree add some festive Fall flavor).  Or if you don’t have time to cook steel cut oats, buy plain instant oats.  You won’t get the same slowly digesting, glycemic index friendly benefits as with steel cut, but it’s a much better choice than the flavored kind. 

Protein/Energy bars.  Not all bars are created equal.  However, most contain high amounts of sugar and saturated fat. Some have the same amount or more than a candy bar!  Most people who eat protein bars are doing so because they need a quick, portable source of energy to sustain them before/during/or after exercise. The problem is that all that sugar causes blood glucose levels to quickly soar before abruptly crashing.

Try this instead.  A piece of whole fruit with source of protein like a cheese stick. If you really want a large source of supplemental protein, there are some protein powders out there that don’t contain added ingredients like sugar and salt.  Make sure to read the label!

Sushi.  Sushi is notinherently unhealthy. The issue is that we don’t realize how many calories and fat are in some of the rolls. Some of the specialty rolls that include cream cheese, mayo based sauce, and are tempura based (aka battered and fried) can pack an additional 300-500 additional calories per roll- most of which comes from fat. 

Try this instead. The good news is that sushi doesn’t have to be a health food phony! Simply order rolls that are wrapped in cucumber, seaweed, or rice paper instead of rice.   Stick to rolls with ingredients primarily consisting of vegetables or fish.  This will help to ensure that your sushi is packed with protein and nutrients and lacking added calories and fat from the fatty sauces and coatings.

Juicing.  In spite of what all those infomercials and celebrities are trying to sell you or tell you, juice cleanses and diets are not an effective way to lose weight or detoxify your body.  Simply eating a clean diet enables your body to detox itself and maintain a healthy pH all on its own.  If you think about it, juice based diets are high carb (sugar), low protein diets which will cause a spike in blood sugar and likely lead to headaches, mood swings and fatigue; not to mention wreaking havoc on your metabolism.    

Try this instead.  Eat the whole fruit or vegetable.  It’s that simple. When you eat the whole piece, you’re getting all the fiber and nutrients contained in the skin which will help your food digest more slowly and lead to a slow steady release of energy which won’t cause you to crash later on.

Egg substitutes. like “Egg Beaters”.  Boasting the same nutritional and protein packed power of eggs, without the cholesterol, egg substitutes may seem healthier than regular eggs, but egg substitutes often have a plethora of added ingredients such as xanthan gum and maltodextrin (sugar).  Granted, some manufacturers claim to add back in vitamins and minerals that are normally provided by the yolk. We’re guessing that most people would still prefer to eat their eggs without a side of sugar.  

Try this instead.  Eat the whole egg. Unless you have high cholesterol, eating the whole egg is a great nutritional source of protein and contains a Vitamin D and B-12.  For those who need to limit cholesterol, there are a few brands of egg whites that are 100% egg whites. Check the ingredients. There shouldn't be anything listed except for egg whites. 

100 calorie packs.  Studies have shown that people will still eat the same amount if not more calories when they are eating 100 calorie snacks. Plus they cost more, and are typically made from the exact same ingredients as a full portions size, meaning they are not any healthier than their full size counterparts. 

Try this instead. One or two pieces (about 1.5 oz.) of at least 70% or higher dark chocolate.  Dark chocolate is nutritionally different from other varieties of chocolate because it has less fat and sugar and more heart healthy, overall good for you food, antioxidants and fiber.  Check out this nutritional comparison of dark chocolate to milk chocolate and other sweets and you’ll be a believer too!

Pretzels.  Thankfully the pretzel health food halo is starting to fade on its own.  It’s no doubt that pretzels used to be the go-to ” healthy” snack for social gatherings. Now, more people are aware that pretzels are little more than carbohydrates coated in salt. Not only do they offer very little nutritional value in the way of vitamins and minerals, but they are also low in fiber and high in sodium.  All those quickly digesting carbs without any fiber means that you will get hungrier sooner after eating them…oh and that’s after your blood sugar spikes from all the white starches.

Try this instead.  Have a piece of fruit and a source of protein like cheese or peanut butter. If you’re really in the mood for a crunchy snack, try making your own apple chips or zucchini chips. If you’re in hurry or hosting your own social gathering, try some nuts like almonds, walnuts, or pistachios.  Make sure to get the raw, unsalted or sweetened kind. Words like “honey-roasted” should be a red flag.   

Many “Healthy” Cereals.  Divert the advertisement trap. Many seemingly healthy cereal brands are sold in boxes that are covered with health claims and buzzwords from popular fads that boast things like “whole grain”, “organic”, “with Greek yogurt!”, and “added protein”.  But, if you read the label, you’re likely to see it’s all an illusion.  All that added protein? 1 gram. Many cereals have more sugar in one serving than is recommended for the entire day. What you probably won’t see is any decent amount of protein or fiber.

Try this instead.  Steel cut oatmeal. With no added ingredients, you’re sure to get a wholesome start to your day.  For those who are more of a fan of cold cereals, aim for a cereal that has at least 4 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving.  The first few ingredients should be whole grains, whole oats, etc. Sugar or any of its derivatives should not be!  And remember, if you eat more than one serving (like most people) don’t forget to take that into account too. 

Orange juice vs. orange nutrition source :;

Superfood Series: Part 2

7 Reasons why non-fat Greek Yogurt is a superfood all-star: 

  1. Weight Control.  Non-fat Greek yogurt is a power house for lean protein.  One serving (1 cup) of plain non-fat Greek yogurt has 130 calories, 0g fat, 6g sugar (naturally occurring in all dairy), and a whopping 22g of protein. Nutritionally speaking, that is half the sugar and 2x the protein found in plain nonfat regular yogurt, which will help you feel fuller, longer. This is the Holy Grail for those who are looking for healthy snacks while on the path to weight loss or healthy weight maintenance. 
  2. Diabetes.  There are so many foods and snacks that are not ideal for those with insulin resistance or diabetes. Greek yogurt is certainly not one of them.  Greek yogurt is absorbed slowly into the blood stream, which allows for a slow and steady release of energy.  Greek yogurt undergoes a straining process which removes the liquid whey.  Subsequently, half of the sugar is also removed, but the protein remains intact.  It’s because of this process that Greek yogurt is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt.   
  3. Digestion.  Greek yogurt is a great source of probiotics.  What’s so great about probiotics?  They are tiny little microorganisms that help improve digestion and protect your gut from harmful bacteria.  Research has shown that probiotics can help treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome, diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, and other gastrointestinal disorders.  They can also help promote regular bowel movements.
  4. Blood Pressure.  In one of the largest studies of its kind, research by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) indicated that foods rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and protein (i.e. Greek Yogurt) can help reduce elevated blood pressure.  Bonus:  Greek yogurt has about half the amount of sodium of regular yogurt. Greek yogurt is a clear choice for those with high blood pressure. 
  5. Lactose Intolerant.  Contrary to popular belief, it not only acceptable, but health experts recommend that people with mild lactose intolerance include small amounts of dairy in their diet. The key is to choose dairy with low amounts of lactose.  Cue the Greek yogurt.  Part of the straining process that transforms regular yogurt into Greek yogurt subsequently removes about 95% of the lactose.  This is why lactose intolerant people can often digest Greek yogurt comfortably. 
  6. Athletes. The same high protein, calcium, magnesium, and potassium content that contributes to Greek yogurt’s ability to lower blood pressure, also makes it a great choice for athletes.  All the protein and electrolytes present in Greek yogurt can help athletes replenish stores that may have been lost during intense exercise. Not to mention the calcium in Greek yogurt helps keep bones strong and less prone to injury.
  7. Versatility.  One of the best things about Greek yogurt is that in addition to being eaten alone, it can be substituted for just about anything!  It can be blended in with smoothies or mixed with fruit and frozen to make a healthier ice cream.  Greek yogurt doesn’t curdle at a high temperature so it can also be used in place of sour cream, mayo, vegetable oil and cream cheese in dessert recipes and casseroles. 

Please note*When we say Greek yogurt we are referring to the plain, non-fat variety. 

Overweight & Obesity Stigma: Shaming Helps No One


Fat shaming is a form of public humiliation aimed at evoking a change in the name of “health”. It occurs every day to people of all ages, races, sizes, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. It happens at home, school, and work. At its most detrimental level, it’s precipitated by those whom we trust the most: our family members and health care providers. Often, these shameful thoughts and generalizations are internalized and eventually we become our own bullies.

The stigma associated with being overweight and obese often manifests into discrimination-which can be just as damaging as other forms of discrimination. The consequences bear devastating mental and physical health outcomes. In the past decade, the prevalence of weight discrimination in the United States has increased by 66% and is still climbing. This issue is something we can no longer avoid as a society.

The Impact of the Media


Fat shaming can be seen just about everywhere you look. Take for example a recent Scooby-Doo movie that “cursed” Daphne with being overweight, emphasizing to children that being overweight is something to be ashamed of…a “curse”.

The “fitspo” aka “fitness inspiration” community has no doubt reinforced this message. With mantras like “if you just run 5 miles a day or do this specific workout…you will look like this” [insert picture of extremely lean and toned, shirtless guy/girl in spandex],


the focus is often skewed toward appearance rather than health. What the fitspo community fails to mention is that the model in the picture doesn’t do that particular workout at all. Everyone’s body is different and will respond to a workout in its own unique way.

The idea that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is a matter of trying hard enough is apparent in almost any infomercial and/or print media for an exercise routine, diet, or supplement. Advertisements emphasize the idea that weight loss and being healthy is a matter of calories in and out, using the right products, or engaging in the right exercise routine (which you too can partake in for the right price) and that people must be lazy if they are overweight. The diet and fitness industry capitalize off the belief that being overweight is a character flaw, evoking a demand for their product by those in need of gaining back lost virtue.

A 2008 study revealed the tendency of the media to selectively report on scientific article findings and to frame weight and health related news stories in a way that dramatizes the content and fosters individual blame. However, recent research has shown that this is not a good strategy to evoke positive public health change. For example, studies have shown that fat shaming actually has the potential to lead individuals already struggling with weight management to gain more weight in some cases, thus, the original intention of the shaming backfires. As it should- bullying, shaming and discrimination overall, have never been shown to be beneficial to anyone.


So much of what we see in the news and in product advertisements conveys that body weight is a direct indicator of health. Although we agree that weight is an important factor in assessing health, it’s much more complicated than that and additional factors must be considered for a complete picture. Recent research indicates thin people too, can be “fat”. This is a direct message to not judge a book by its cover. Research has more than established at this point that thin does not necessarily equal healthy, and overweight does not necessarily equal unhealthy. What we see on the surface is only a small representation of what going on below the surface.



Missing the Mark


Take for example, the 2012 Strong4Life ad campaign which is part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital’s five-year, $25 million initiative designed to curb childhood obesity in Georgia. The campaign features pictures of seemingly overweight children with a “warning” that states “it’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” and “fat prevention begins at home…And the buffet line”. Their newest video demonstrates how a fat child, enabled by “bad” parenting, is led to have a heart attack through a series of lifelong bad habits.

It’s hard to understand why people say and do the things they do in relation to overweight people. A concerned parent of an obese child may think they are helping their child by saying something like “a minute of the lips, forever on the hips”. But in reality, these types of comments are embarrassing and will not encourage the child to make healthier choices. Instead, a more likely outcome is they’ll learn to eat alone and in shame during their next meal.

By the same token, health care providers are often uncomfortable approaching the subject and may not realize that simply telling someone to eat less and exercise more will not always help. In a recent interview, Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale, spoke about the issue of weight related bias in the health care system. “Women with obesity report that doctors are one of the most common sources of weight bias in their lives – 69% of women reported these experiences with doctors. Negative weight related attitudes and stereotypes toward patients with obesity have been documented among physicians, nurses, medical students, dietitians, psychologists, and even health professionals who specialize in obesity. Stereotypes include assumptions that patients with obesity are non-compliant with treatment, lazy, and lack willpower and motivation to improve their health.” said Puhl. This brings to light the complexity of the issue. Oftentimes health care providers may think they are helping a patient lose weight by “encouraging” them, but in all actuality, that’s not what happens. Simply put: you can’t shame people into being “healthier”.

Adverse effects

People that are exposed to more weight based discrimination are more likely to experience shame, gain weight, stop seeking medical treatment, and avoid exercise. Depression, emotional eating, and low self-esteem also play a role. Research has shown that overweight people who reported discrimination based on weight were more than twice as likely to be obese four years later than people who didn't experience such discrimination. As research has more than established, making someone feel bad about themselves does not encourage healthy behavior change.

The Need for a Shift

It’s time for a shift in the conversation- from body size, numbers, and shaming to a positive focus on individual health behavior change. As a community, we need to encourage and enable everyone to make healthier lifestyle choices. Shame does not have a place in health promotion and is not an effective motivator of change.


Image Sources: Daphne; Glacier; Strong4life;