In collaboration with his former Harvard colleagues, Alvin Tran, PhD, MPH co-authored a new academic paper recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examining patterns of how sexual minority men perceive and respond to calorie labels on menus of the restaurants.
November 3, 2023
By Rene Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When many restaurant chains were first required by law to list total calories on their menus, Alvin Tran, MD, MPH, was hungry to learn more. He was wondering if these tags 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 nutrition in public health and body image, I began to question whether there were unintended consequences of 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 issues?”
When he joined the university in 2019, Dr. Tran launched the Male Body Project, a study examining health-related behaviors among sexual minority men. After launching an online survey to collect data from more than 500 sexual minority men in the United States, he has a reliable data set to use in his research and in his work with students.
The data set proved invaluable in helping to understand how sexual minority men respond to calorie labels. Dr. Tran led a study conducted in collaboration with two Harvard University researchers, serving as senior author. They found that roughly half of the participants reported noticing the calorie labels and were more likely to report unhealthy eating behaviors. Most often, they report ordering fewer calories. The researchers also found that disordered eating behavior was associated with changes in behavior in response to calorie information.
“Overall, I wasn’t too surprised because the findings confirmed my own suspicions,” said Dr. Tran, who is currently on public service leave from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Healthcare (ARPA-H). “This was a novel finding as it added to the limited but growing literature on the impact of menu labeling. However, the finding of an association between disordered eating and changes in behavior in response to calorie information was troubling. Although the information may be useful to some, it may also be a stimulus to others.”
“Start a bigger, 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 multiple studies with his students and inform public health practice and policy. As of 2019, the WE Lab has published at least 10 peer-reviewed articles, often with University of New Haven students as co-authors.
This last paper was particularly meaningful to Dr. Tran. Not only was the study published in the prestigious American Journal of Preventive Medicine, it also included Dr. Tran’s former colleagues at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, where he completed his PhD on nutrition in public health.
The researchers plan to continue analyzing the treasure trove of information in the Male Body Project dataset. Dr. Tran is excited to continue learning as much as he can to help inform food and nutrition policy. He also hopes that this latest research and the results, which suggest that different communities respond differently to calorie labels, will lead to more understanding as well as further conversations about how best to promote it. health.
“One group may be more focused on promoting weight loss and fighting obesity, while another promotes body positivity and acceptance,” explains Dr. Tran. “I hope the results will start a larger, productive conversation among those representing the fields of nutrition, body image, and eating disorder prevention.” Although they all aim to promote and maintain health, there is much disagreement about the strategies when it comes to patients and members of the public.”