Outstanding Contributions to Health Psychology by an Early Career Professional

A. Janet Tomiyama, PhD
A. Janet Tomiyama, PhD

Janet Tomiyama, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. A. Janet Tomiyama is the 2016 recipient of the Society for Health Psychology’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to Health Psychology by an Early-Career Professional. An Assistant Professor in the Health Psychology Area of the Department of Psychology at UCLA, Dr. Tomiyama is a rising star in the science of health psychology. Beginning with an influential paper in the American Psychologist written in graduate school (Mann, Tomiyama et al., 2007), Dr. Tomiyama has built a program of research investigating why the health behavior of dieting is often ineffective as a “cure” for obesity. In a particularly rigorous paper that exemplifies Dr. Tomiyama’s careful mechanistic work, she hypothesized that dieting is stressful and triggers a cortisol response which could undermine weight loss, given cortisol’s role in abdominal fat deposition and appetite. In a randomized, controlled experiment, she found that dieting is psychologically stressful and promotes higher daily cortisol secretion (Tomiyama et al., 2010).

Dr. Tomiyama is a leader in the field of stress, eating behavior, and obesity. She has identified stress as a risk factor for the longitudinal development of obesity in a sample of nearly 2,500 Black and White girls (Tomiyama et al., 2013). In addition, the relationship between stress and BMI gain was stronger in Black girls than white girls, illuminating a mechanism for the large racial disparity in obesity rates. A fascinating series of studies demonstrated that stress-induced eating, a more proximal mechanism for the stress-obesity link, actually might be effective in dampening stress responses. For example, she found that highly stressed individuals tended to engage in more comfort eating, which in turn was related to lower diurnal cortisol and lower cortisol reactivity to experimentally-induced stress (Tomiyama, Dallman, & Epel, 2011). Individuals who engaged in more comfort eating also reported lower psychological reactivity in response to stressful life events (Finch & Tomiyama, 2015). Dr. Tomiyama has parlayed these findings into an intervention, recently funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which replaces unhealthy comfort-related food with fruits and vegetables.

A social health psychologist by training, Dr. Tomiyama is deeply interested in the effects of social stigma on health. Specifically, she has developed a programmatic research arc in the area of obesity stigma, which some evidence places on par with stigma based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Tomiyama has posited one of the now dominant theoretical models for how obesity stigma can harm health. In her 2014 theoretical review, she proposed that experiencing obesity stigma is stressful, which in turn causes increases in cortisol, which triggers fat deposition and drives appetite. Over time, weight gain ensues, placing individuals at ever more risk for experiencing obesity stigma and poor health. Based on work amassing evidence for each step of her model, the National Science Foundation awarded Dr. Tomiyama a prestigious CAREER grant.

Additional evidence of the impact of Dr. Tomiyama’s research is her 2013 Society of Behavioral Medicine Early Career Investigator Award and selection as a “Rising Star” by the Association for Psychological Science (2013). Her work is widely cited in scientific and public media. For example, a 2016 paper was covered by the New York Times, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, the Los Angeles Times, and other outlets. Tomiyama’s dedication to research mentoring also is notable, particularly for under-represented minority students. For example, she has developed a summer research internship targeted to under-represented students, funded by her NSF CAREER grant.

In light of these outstanding theoretical and empirical contributions, which carry clear implications for application and public policy, Dr. A. Janet Tomiyama is highly deserving of the Society for Health Psychology Award. We have full confidence that she will continue her exceptional trajectory of research to advance the science and evidence-based application of health psychology.

Annette Stanton, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles