Health Sciences Professor Publishes Impactful Research in Prestigious Journal
In collaboration with his former Harvard colleagues, Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH is a co-author of a new academic paper recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine exploring patterns in how sexual-minority men notice and respond to the calorie labels on restaurant menus.
November 3, 2023
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When many restaurant chains were first required by law to include calorie totals on their menus, Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH was hungry to learn more. He wondered if these labels worked. Did they really inspire consumers to make healthier choices?
The research, he learned, had yielded mixed results. As a researcher, he was eager to contribute his own data. His own work focuses on the intersection of body image, disordered eating behaviors, health policy, and racial and sexual minority health, and he wanted to explore the impact these labels have on sexual minority men.
"As a researcher who has studied both public health nutrition and body image, I began to question if there are unintended consequences of the labels as well," explains Dr. Tran, an assistant professor in the University’s Department of Population Health and Leadership. "For example, will they do more harm than good for people recovering from eating disorders and body-image concerns?"
'A novel finding'
When he joined the University in 2019, Dr. Tran launched the Men’s Body Project, a study exploring health-related behaviors among sexual-minority men. After launching an online survey to collect data from more than 500 sexual-minority men across the United States, he had a reliable dataset to use in his research and in his work with students.
The dataset proved to invaluable in helping to understand how sexual minority men responded to calorie labels. Dr. Tran oversaw a study conducted in collaboration with two Harvard University researchers, serving as senior author. They found that approximately half the participants reported noticing the calorie labels, and they were more likely to report engaging in disordered eating behaviors. Most often, they reported ordering fewer calories. The researchers also found that disordered eating behaviors were associated with behavior changes in response to calorie information.
"Overall, I wasn’t too surprised, as the findings confirmed my own suspicions," says Dr. Tran, who is currently on a public-service leave of absence with the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). "This was a novel finding as it contributed to the limited, but growing, literature on the impact of menu labeling. That said, the finding of an association between disordered eating and behavior changes in response to calorie information was concerning. While the information may be helpful to some, it can also be triggering to others."
'Start a larger, productive conversation'
Director of the University’s WeEmbody (or WE) Lab, a working group of public health professionals and students, Dr. Tran has used the data to publish numerous studies with his students and to inform public health practice and policies. Since 2019, the WE Lab has published at least 10 peer-reviewed articles, often with University of New Haven students serving as co-authors.
This latest paper was particularly meaningful for Dr. Tran. Not only was the research published in the prestigious American Journal of Preventive Medicine, it also included Dr. Tran’s former colleagues from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where he completed his doctoral research on public health nutrition.
The researchers plan to continue to analyze the treasure trove of information in the dataset from the Men’s Body Project. Dr. Tran is excited to continue to learn as much as he can to help inform food and nutrition policy. He also hopes this newest research and the results that suggest diverse communities respond to calorie labels differently will yield more understanding, as well as continued conversations about how to best promote health.
"One group may be more focused on promoting weight loss and fighting obesity while another is promoting body positivity and acceptance," explains Dr. Tran. "I am hoping the results will start a larger, productive conversation between those who represent the nutrition, body image, and eating disorders prevention fields. While they all aim to promote and maintain health, there’s a lot of disagreement on strategies when it comes to patients and members of the public."