Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine

Summer 2022

How Understanding Identity Can Improve the Effectiveness of Dietary Interventions: A Conversation with Suzannah Gerber

Jennifer A. Emond, PhD, MS‚úČ; Evidence-Based Behavioral Medicine SIG

Suzannah Gerber, MA

Healthy dietary patterns are important for positive physical and mental health across the lifespan.  Unfortunately, most Americans consume a diet of poor nutritional quality. Dietary changes are challenging, as poor habits can be difficult to revise once they are established.  Evidence-based behavioral medicine is crucial to help individuals make positive dietary changes and stick with those changes over time. However, there are many gaps in our understanding for what will work for whom and when.

Suzannah Gerber is a dedicated behavior change scholar, chef, and advocate whose work aims to elucidate the importance of identity in shaping our dietary behaviors. Understanding how identity shapes behavioral differences not only across individuals, but within individuals over time, will enable the design of more tailored dietary interventions and thus holds promise for increasing the sustainability of dietary changes. I talked with Ms. Gerber in May and here are a few key takeaways from that interview.

What do we mean when we talk about identity?

Identity is usually talked about as demographics in most areas of health sciences. That could be sex, race, ethnicity, or religion. Identity becomes a more complex and robust construct when we look to fields such as psychology or anthropology, where identity is more about how someone internally understands themselves. That can mean self-, social- or group-identity, for some ontological examples. My research shows that people hold multiple “identities,” which can change over the lifespan, or even during a single day, often in response to specific cues, their environment, and the people around them.

Why is it important to consider one’s identity when we consider eating behaviors?

Cues in our environment and the internal states we experience because of those cues affect what we value in the moment. This in turn may influence what foods and drinks we choose if we want our choices to align with those salient values. Your response to what you would like to have for lunch may be very different if you are with your co-workers versus with your kids, for example. Thus, we need to understand the importance of identity as a lens from which individuals act and make dietary choices.

Why is acknowledging identity important from a research perspective specifically?

Even simply asking individuals first about how much they identify with a certain environment can improve the reporting of their eating behaviors in that environment, perhaps because identity in that context becomes more salient.  It is also critical to understand how identity can impact long-term dietary change. For example, an individual may choose to consume foods and drinks they normally would not because they are in an environment where it is important to adhere to shared social or cultural norms. The individual thus experiences an internal shift and dissonance between their dietary goals and their identity. That dissonance then becomes the new obstacle to overcome if we want to support sustained dietary changes.

Is there a closing comment about identity you would like Outlook readers to know?

It is important to appreciate identity as a self-defined experience. Even when members of a group share the same race or ethnicity, for example, there is enormous heterogeneity within these groups, and those internal difference could influence behaviors and commitments. Interventions that acknowledge the richness of one’s internal identities is better able to fully honor the individual, and thus may increase the relevancy of behavior change intentions.

A video explaining Ms. Gerber’s recent research with Dr. Sara Folta of Tufts University, You Are What You Eat…but Do You Eat What You Are? The Role of Identity in Eating Behavior, can be found here.

Suzannah Gerber is an executive chef, cookbook author, advocate, and scholar with a passion for plant-based dietary interventions and public health. She is a PhD student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Ms. Gerber was awarded the Silver Award for Outstanding Student Abstract in the Theories and Techniques of Behavior Change SIG award at the 2022 SBM annual meeting.