Meet the Postdocs – Alissa Smethers

Alissa Smethers, PhD, received her PhD in Nutrition science from Pennsylvania State University. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Menella Lab where she looks at both children and their mothers as a dyad, sweet taste phenotypes, and new measures of dietary habits that incorporate what people like to eat.

Alissa Smethers

Alissa Smethers, PhD

Q. A registered dietitian and a nutritional scientist? Tell me a little bit about the story behind the two titles.
I started off my career as a registered dietitian. For about two and a half years, I worked in a hospital as a clinical dietitian. And one time, through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, I got to hear from nutritional scientist Dr. Barbara Rolls about how portion sizes influence what children are eating. Then I had all these questions about the role that the environment plays in our food intake and in diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease. I just wanted to learn more, so I decided to get my PhD in nutrition science!

Q. How did it go from there? What did you learn?
I did my PhD at Penn State and worked with Dr. Rolls for four years. I looked at how the environment, specifically portion size and energy density, influenced children’s ability to self regulate their food intake. What we found is that there was no indication that children would adjust how much they are eating when they are hungry versus when they are not.

Q. Sounds like a very important piece of information for parents?
Exactly! A lot of times it’s recommended for parents to provide the food and let the child decide how much to eat. But if the parent does provide more than what their child needs, research tells us the child might eat excess calories, which could lead to the development of obesity, among other things.

Q. So how did you end up at Monell after that?
I met Dr. Julie Menella at a conference. We started talking, and I really wanted to learn about taste preferences and how they also influence our food intake. And this is exactly what I’m researching right now.

Q. And what are some of the questions you are addressing?
I am asking questions that all revolve around our taste preferences, specifically preferences for sweet taste. We want to know whether people who have a higher liking for sweetness eat greater amounts of added sugar, which they shouldn’t be consuming.

Q. How does that affect children? Don’t children generally have a high preference for sweet taste?
That’s exactly why the questions we’re asking are especially relevant when we speak about children’s food intake. New dietary guidelines say that children under the age of two should not be eating any added sugar. But since children are born with a liking for sweet tastes, it is important to consider their preferences. We need to ask questions like how following or disregarding these guidelines may affect their taste preferences and eating patterns over time.

Q. What do you tell children when they come in with their mothers to participate in your research?
We say that we’re going to play a game with things to taste. We tell the participating children that they will taste two cups and then point to one they like best. We then repeat this several times. It is always fun because kids like to give their input. They enjoy telling us what they like to do and eat but also what they don’t. So they’re great at the tasting game!

Q. Speaking of things we like to do, what are some of the things you do outside of the lab?
I’m pretty involved with the Pennsylvania Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the dietitian group for the state. I do a lot of volunteer work for them, and I helped plan the annual meeting last year where we focused on diversity and inclusion. We had speakers from a variety of backgrounds talk about their research experience, and it was a truly enriching experience.

Q. And moving forward, what are more questions you are hoping to answer or things you are hoping to learn?
I definitely want to learn more about the direct impacts of everything we talked about on children’s lives. Can we intervene to help kids change or establish certain dietary patterns? Young children are still consuming added sugars everyday, and it is crucial to understand not only how this is harmful but also how it can be changed.