5 questions with Mark Faries, Ph.D. about Behavioral & Lifestyle Medicine, opportunities for kinesiology majors, and bananas and belly fat

Mark Faries, Ph.D.
Mark Faries, Ph.D.

Interviewer: Mike Roberts, Ph.D.: It’s always a pleasure to interact with you, Mark. You have a Kinesiology background, but have married that experience to your current outreach position at Texas A&M University.  While I geek out about molecular pathways and the like, every time we talk you make me think about the much bigger picture (for instance, motivating people to eat healthy and exercise in the first place). 

Q1: You actively practice “Behavioral and Lifestyle Medicine,” and have collaborations with scientists all over the world furthering this venture. Can you describe what this field entails? 

At their core, both fields are about empowering people to adopt and sustain healthy habits for a lifetime. Specifically, ‘Lifestyle Medicine’ is the use of lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthier diet, physical activity or sleep to help prevent, treat and even reverse disease. ‘Behavioral Medicine,’ in how I practice, is the digging into why and how people adopt and maintain healthy lifestyle change, or not.

Q2: A lot of your recent research has dealt with self-esteem and why that may be a barrier to exercising or eating healthy.  What have been some of your breakthrough findings? 

I first discovered that common weight-related or medical screenings are not benign or valueless, meaning they produced an array of emotional and motivational responses. This finding was a breakthrough, because there was a common assumption that people were going to be motivated to fix their problem if we just told them what it was, such as being motivated to lose weight by finding out they were classified as ‘overweight.’ This was not the case. This helped explain a phenomena we see in weight and cancer screenings, in that people will not get screened, because they do not want to know what they weigh or that they have cancer, respectively.

Once we measured their emotional and motivational responses to such testing, we then started asking what they were going to do with their motivation. Shockingly, physical activity and healthy eating were not common choices. Anecdotally, we were finding that people had a entire reportoire of ways to cope or ‘deal with’ it. So, we tested it, and found that people have a complex toolbox of coping mechanisms that people can engage to any body- or weight-related threat.

These findings really put into the question the idea that helping people see where they are not matching their standard or goal in health would inspire physical activity and healthy eating.

Interestingly, we began to question why people were even motivated in the first place. We, and others, have clearly shown that many inactive people do not like exercise, nor do those who eat an unhealthy diet enjoy eating a healthy diet. If they did, they would be active and eat healthy. We could ask, then, why do people exercise and eat healthy?

We did ask this question in a set of studies, some of which are still being analyzed. In short, our breakthrough discovery here seems to show that people have some pretty strong, innate, hard-wired desires or fundamental needs that if threatened, can drive behavior choice:

Self-esteem: The fundamental desire to maintain self-esteem and self-integrity or to feel better about oneself.

Social Status: The fundamental need to seek social inclusion and avoid exclusion, which can be threatened by risk of exclusion or evaluation.

Sex: The fundamental need for mating relationships and strategies, alongside maximizing reproductive success (eg, physical attractiveness, body image, mate value).

Survival: The fundamental need for survival, longevity, and disease avoidance, which could include perceptions of health, energy, and physical functioning.

Family: The fundamental need for one’s role and investment as a parent, spouse, or member of a family unit.

Spirituality: The fundamental need to to find meaning, and/or connect and have a relationship with a higher spiritual power. This need would also include living in a way that is representative of this identity or in a way that fulfills a way of life, principles, laws, or dogma (ie, spiritual self). 

Now, consider that each one of these desires (and their might be more) are separate channels on a sound board. I believe that people have various ‘volume levels’ of each of these that dictate behavioral choices. For example, a woman who who is motivated by body image (‘Sex’), but not ‘Survival’ might be more prone to pursue disordered eating to achieve a desired body image, than another woman who is motivated by both ‘Sex’ and ‘Survival.’ thus not as open to put her health at risk. More to come on this theory.

The final theory that I am working on now, and what I am most excited about, is what I am calling a ‘Theology in Health,’ which applies a Biblical lens or paradigm to our struggle with health behavior. You can find more information about this on my website and social media. I am so passionate about this now, I have started my own ministry to help churches develop ‘wellness ministries,’ and help connect physical with spiritual wellness. (turnandlive.org).

Q3: I am a HUGE fan of your Fitness Pudding website.  Can you give readers a glimpse into the mission and content of the website? 

Thanks! Yes, FitnessPudding.com is a free, non-profit site that I developed to put common health, diet, and fitness concepts, theories, claims, and products to the test with scientific research, understanding, and reasoning. The fitness and health industry is plagued with products, concepts and theories that can be downright deceitful. The problem is if we take these claims as truth they can begin to shape our viewpoints, decisions and behavior, potentially hindering our adoption of a long-term, healthy lifestyle. 

Q4: Your most popular article on the website is titled “Does Eating Bananas Cause Belly Fat?,” and it fetched over 120,000 reads.  What sparked this controversy, and is it true or has that been debunked? 

Since this email. it has garnered another 10,000 hits! It’s amazing, actually, as I would have never guessed that so many people would have been searching for an answer to this myth. Maybe someone saw a monkey with a big belly eating a banana, and made the connection? I was alerted to it by my sister-in-law who was told by her co-worker to stop eating bananas, since they caused belly fat. She then asked me if this were true or not. Skeptical, I looked into it. Come to find out, bananas are higher on the glycemic index than other fruits (especially the more ripe ones), meaning the sugar inside of them gets into our blood stream pretty quickly. The claim is that this increase in blood sugar triggers fat storage, thus ‘bananas make you fat.’ This myth has been debunked, as bananas do not have this effect, and are actually allowed in diets promoted to HELP obese, type 2 diabetics control their weight.

Q5: You have found creative ways to apply your kinesiology background. For our students, where do you think future job opportunities might be? 

1. Lifestyle Medicine. I believe this is the future of medicine, especially on the prevention and treatment side of things. There are a number of lifestyle centers popping up across the world that include key team members, such as exercise physiologist or psychologists. In association, medical fitness facilities (see medical fitness association) are worth taking a look into. 

2. Industry. There are so many new, startup companies that are trying to ‘change the game,’ as it relates to exercise, nutrition, fitness or health — especially apps and other innovative technologies. I have recently discussed behavior change with two really cool companies, Lighter (lighter.world) and Personal Activity Intelligence (paihealth.com).  

3. Extension-Public Health. For those students who want to put their knowledge and skills to work on a larger scale for larger potential impact, the  Extension and Public Health worlds are a sleeping giant. Both are in a great stage of finding novel and innovative ways to integrating their resources and large networks across states and the nation to create massive, transformative change.  

4. Wellness Ministries. I am being very future-thinking here, but I believe that the health and wellness of the church is a major frontier, and believe that we will eventually have ‘wellness ministries’ that serve the health/wellness needs of the church and the surrounding communities. My hope is that these ministries will led by ‘wellness ministers’ in churches that will want people with kinesiology backgrounds to take the lead. Stay tuned, and if interested connect with me through turnandlive.org

5. ???. There are opportunities that we do not even know about. I encourage each of your students to think out of the box, and make their own path. Inspire your inner innovation. As was once said, “The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Thanks so much for the time today Dr. Faries. 

Mark Faries, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor & Extension Specialist in the Family and Community Health unit at Texas A&M University.

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