Food is essential to human life and plays a key role in our health. It is never far from our TVs, or indeed our headlines. But in our society of ever increasing abundance, too much food is now causing problems with obesity and associated health problems on the rise.

It is no surprise therefore that food was a hot topic at the British Science Festival at Swansea University. As I reflected over my full Welsh breakfast, I wondered how can science and public policy most effectively join forces to support healthy eating?

Willy Wonka comes to Swansea

The ‘Foodscape’ guided walk turned Swansea University’s Singleton Campus in to a giant smorgasbord. Psychologist Laura Wilkinson was our guide to the world of food, seen through the lens of behavioural science. She highlighted the omnipresence of food in our daily lives, pointing out that on the university campus alone there were some forty vending machines and six food retail outlets. As she was speaking, the aroma from the gourmet burger stall across the way wafted temptingly across our nostrils, as if to emphasise the point.

First stop was to meet Suzanne Higgs )Professor in the Psychobiology of Appetite at the University of Birmingham, surrounded by a cast of oversized sweets and other treats adorning the trees around her.  She explained how our desire for food can be influenced by a complex range of interlinked factors, including smell, price, social context and the behaviour of others.  She has demonstrated in experimental conditions that people will mimic the food choices of those they see around them. So beware of who’s in front of you at the queue for the buffet.

Next we met Jeff Brunstrom, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol, who emphasised that all foods are not equal. A chocolate ice cream has 3 calories per gram, while the same weight of asparagus has a mere 0.2 calories. He explained how we are hard-wired to prefer energy-dense food, harking back to when our ancient ancestors would have had to fight hard for enough calories to sustain themselves.

Finally, we encountered Swansea’s Professor Michelle Lee, standing in front of a table groaning with delicious cakes. She described the role that impulsivity can play in our food choices and simple methods that can prompt people to make the right decision, such as a wristband that reminds them of longer term health goals.

After all the talk of food, we were finally invited to choose from the baked-goods on display. I couldn't resist, but after all we had heard, managed to stop myself after just one.

Butter or worse?

Professor Judy Buttriss, Director General of the British Nutrition Foundation challenged our assumptions about what constitutes a healthy diet. The media is often quick to jump on new research that suggests that certain types of foods are good or bad, leaving the public feeling confused about what to eat.

Buttriss made the distinction between innate sugar and that which is added to food and drinks, often called free sugar. These free sugars should make up no more than 5% of our intake, and while there has been a successful reduction in younger children’s consumption over the last two decades, we are all still guzzling more than twice the recommended amount of free sugar. One major source is artificially sweetened soft drinks, which make up a staggering 40% of the sugar intake of 11-18 year olds. In 2013 the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges called for an increase in the cost of these drinks to reduce the amounts people drink.

So that’s sugar dealt with. How about the demon carbs and fat? About half of our energy should come from carbohydrates. According to the Family Foodreport, we are eating less bread and vegetables, including potatoes. This can be a problem, as carb-rich foods often also contain fibre of which we need 30g per day. The key can be choosing high fibre options, such as wholemeal bread.

Like sugars, not all fats are the same and the evils of saturated fats have been hotly debated. Buttriss explained that recent studies have definitively demonstrated the link between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease. She urged people to replace saturated fats with the polyunsaturated variety to bring about a reduction in their cholesterol and risk of heart disease. 

The Fat Controller

Professor Ashley Grossman bears little in common with the irascible, rotund figure who was always chiding Thomas the Tank Engine. In a session named after Sir Topham Hatt’s moniker, Grossman spoke to his daughter, science communicator Dr Emily Grossman about his pioneering work as an endocrinologist

Professor Grossman explained how as obesity is becoming increasingly common, so too is Type 2 diabetes, where the body is unable to control the amount of sugar in the blood. The combination can lead to all sorts of problems, including joint disease, eye dysfunction, neurological problems and increased risk of circulatory problems. He described how hormonal control of eating, appetite and weight gaininvolves a complex interplay of genetics, hormones, receptors and the environment that scientists are still trying to unravel.

But doing so may help us find treatments to tackle the obesity epidemic. As babies we have some brown fat, which seems to burn itself up. If we could convert our white fat to brown as adults, then this may help lose weight. Other research has focused on unlocking the secrets of the microbiome, the mixture of bacteria in our guts. One particularly distasteful sounding treatment is faecal transplants. Rather you than me!

On that note I ended my food odyssey through the British Science Festival. Science has helped free many of us from hunger and create a society of plenty. This bounty comes with a curse - illness resulting from unhealthy eating is now rife. Science can also be part of the solution. Psychology, nutritional science, endocrinology and many other disciplines must combine to contribute to our understanding. Science cannot work in a vacuum and it will be vital that the evidence is effectively articulated to ensure that public policy is well-informed, if we are to build a healthy relationship with our food.

Dr Howard Ryland is a Wellcome Trust Media Fellow, placed at the Londonist. He is a ‎Higher Specialty Trainee in Forensic Psychiatry at ‎South West London and St George's Mental Health NHS Trust.