Published in Commencement
Through her research, Thora Eidsdottir has gotten the big picture on teen obesity in Iceland. Now she wants to shrink it
Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
To which Sigridur Thora Eidsdottir might add, “Just be sure to put it down between bites, and eat slowly.”
Eidsdottir came to one fork in her own career path when she was a college student in Iceland. She had decided she wanted to improve health and fitness behaviors through the medium of psychology. Yet the more she scoped out graduate programs on the web, the more she learned about health education, a field that not only explores the psychological makeup of individuals, but also seeks to document the health behaviors of broad populations and to account for social and environmental factors that can act as motivational barriers or incentives. And the more Eidsdottir learned about health education, the more references she found to two particular institutions: Iceland’s own Reykjavik University, and Teachers College.
There was, in fact, a good reason why those two names kept coming up. John Allegrante, Professor of Health Education at TC and then chair of the Health and Behavior Studies department (he is now the College’s Deputy Provost) was a Fulbright Scholar who had spent significant time in Iceland collaborating with public health and social scientists there. He was working closely with Reykjavik University, and would soon spend a year as acting dean of its School of Health and Education.
By happenstance, on the day Allegrante received Eidsdottir’s application to TC, he was flying to Reykavik University. When he arrived, he conspired with colleagues there in playing a prank on Eidsdottir, instructing them to arrange for a meeting and tell her that TC was so impressed by her application that he had been sent to interview her.
Long story short: while Eidsdottir has since learned that TC doesn’t put quite that much personal attention into its admissions process, she did end up coming to TC to work with Allegrante. That decision changed her life on at least two fronts. After some intense initial homesickness, she has decided to stay in the United States.
“I love New York City,” she says. “You can get food from anywhere. The people come from all over, too, and despite the rumors about New Yorkers, I have found them to be very friendly.”
She has also become a budding scientist, publishing both her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation in peer-reviewed journals. Her focus -- obesity among Icelandic adolescents – might seem odd in light of Iceland’s reputation for rugged athleticism, fitness and a healthcare system that has maintained comprehensive databases that document the genetic lineage and current health status of each and every citizen. Yet as Eidsdottir has documented, even Iceland has been unable to dodge the combined global effects of sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy eating that have plagued other industrialized nations.
Working from the Youth in Iceland Studies – an annual survey administered through the nation’s school system – Eidsdottir has shown not only that the rate of obesity in Iceland among young people ages 14-20 has increased significantly during the past 20 years, but also that higher body mass index among teens correlates with lower socio-economic status, and that that correlation is becoming increasingly pronounced. Perhaps most interestingly, she has also established that a previously documented link between obesity and depression among teens is due primarily to negative body image.
What explains these trends?
“Iceland is generally thought of as being homogenous in terms of socio-economic status, but in recent years, between the economic crisis in 2008 and increased immigration, there has been a widening gap in income levels,” Eidsdottir says.
The economic crisis also created new stresses in a society that, more than many others, has avoided some of the pressures of the modern world. Then, too, Eidsdottir believes that stress everywhere has ratcheted up in recent years.
“Technology probably is a factor,” she says. “Everything is faster, daily life requires less physical activity and people spend less time in preparing their food and eating properly.”
Eidsdottir herself puts a premium on fitness and, despite the fact that her father runs a meat processing plant in Iceland, has become a vegetarian since coming to the United States.
“All those growth hormones you allow here,” she says, making a face.
She believes obesity is a key battleground for wellness in general. “Only smoking is related to more illnesses,” she says. “So if you can prevent obesity, you can reduce the incidence of so many other disorders.”
Eidsdottir hopes to work toward that goal using social marketing to mount health campaigns patterned after those against cigarette smoking. Ultimately, she believes that what people eat is less important than how they eat it – a focus that brings her full circle back to psychology.
“What matters, I think, is to eat smaller portions, to eat slowly; to chew more often; to stop as soon as you are full; and to be mindful and take time to enjoy the food and speak to those who are eating with you, and not to work or watch television while you are eating,” she says. “Eating is one of life’s pleasures, and you should enjoy it to the fullest.”