Food for thought: why your brain is always running a marathon

Jan 03, 2019

We get a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) as Alessandro Cicerale, research fellow and lecturer at the University of Turin in Italy, talks about the launch of the new course: ‘Food for Thought: The Relationship Between Food, Gut and Brain’ and why your brain is basically always running a marathon.

Hi Alessandro! Can you please explain who you are and what it is that you do?

I am a research fellow and lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Torino, where I’ve been for the last five years. I have a PhD in Neuroscience and a Masters in Complex Actions with a focus on food systems.

And what exactly is a ‘MOOC’ and what is this one about?

A ‘MOOC’ is short for ‘Massive Open Online Course’, which just basically means that it is available online and is free to everyone who wants to take it. The course itself is about how your diet affects your brain, and how your brain affects your diet. For example, perhaps you may already have an idea that you should eat more or less of something and that there are certain foods that may not be good for your health, but no-one has the complete picture. This is what this course aims to provide: a holistic look at how the brain can influence your food choices and how in turn these choices can affect your brain. It’s an extremely ambitious topic that looks a lot at our biology and aspects of the psychology of food.

Sounds amazing! So, what led you to be working on this course with your team?

I came up with the idea for the course by drawing on my own work experience, and in particular on the studies exploring the neuroscience of eating disorders. However, I needed to form a team  with  strengths complementary to mine and I researched who the best partners would be. This is how I met Monika Kaczmarek from the Animal Reproduction & Food Research Polish Academy of Sciences in Poland and Nanette Stroebele-Benschop from the University of Hohenheim in Germany. Together we successfully applied to EIT Food for funding and this is why we have been able to turn my original idea into a great online course that launched on 22 October!

Is it quite a long process from having an original idea for a MOOC to then actually being able to open it up for registration?

For us the project got approval at the start of 2018 and we’ve been working together since then, so it will have been about 9 months of work. A lot goes in to making a course like this.

So why do you think there is a need for this course and why should people take it?

The course is needed as it explains our relationship with food and this might help improve people’s health and eating behaviours. Similarly, there will be some behaviours that lead to poor food choices, such as eating too much when you are stressed. So, this course should help improve awareness of these types of behaviour patterns and help explain why something happens in relation to food. It’s really for everyone who has an interest in the topic and wants to learn something about themselves.

What outcomes do you want people to take away from this course and what would success look like for you?

A great result for the team who put this together would be to know that we have helped deepen the knowledge of everyone who takes the course and widen awareness of food behaviours. If people then go on to learn more on this topic or decide to take another course as they have been stimulated by the learning process then that would be a real success. There will be discussions and suggested next steps that we will also provide during the course programme to enable people to take their learning even further if they wish.

Is there anything that you discovered while creating this course that surprised you?

The surprising thing for me was just how challenging the video making process was: talking to a camera is very different to teaching a lecture hall full of students! There are a lot of teaching videos in this course and I have had to learn a very different teaching style, including knowing how to talk into the camera and how to convey the right messages in an engaging way to an online audience. It has also really surprised me the amount of work that goes into creating a 5-minute video as you need a lot of takes and video editing to get this just right. It’s been a really enjoyable learning process for me, though!

And do you think there will be anything that will surprise people who take this course?

There was one fact that stuck with me from one of our first modules: 1 gram of the human brain consumes as much energy every minute as the leg muscles of an athlete running a marathon. So basically your brain is running a marathon all the time! Course participants will learn all sorts of interesting things like this that they would never have considered before.

That’s incredible! Do you think that educational courses like this can really make a difference to the way that we eat and the health of society?

Yes, I really do. If more people become aware and deepen their knowledge of food choices, then they can act and make more informed decisions. If they also share this knowledge with others, then society as a whole benefits.

Finally, Alessandro, if you could change one thing about the food sector, what would it be?

I think that we have lost our connection with food and so for me one of the best ways to bring that back is to teach everyone how to cook. This will show people what good food looks like without having to rely on confusing marketing messages, so this means that everyone then has the power to choose for themselves what they buy, what they cook and ultimately, what they eat. That would be very powerful.

You can register for the ‘Food for Thought: The Relationship Between Food, Gut and Brain’ MOOC at Future Learn. The course opened on 22 October, 2018.

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