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Shaping our choices

Our overarching theme this year forges connections between health, wellbeing and sustainability. This meeting is the second in a series of three about diets and lifestyles and the panel of witnesses helped us to explore factors that shape and drive what people choose to eat.

Our first witness was Professor Martin White, a clinical academic who leads the food behaviours and public health interventions group at the Centre for Diet and Exercise Research (CEDAR), based within the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge.

He will be joining Bee Wilson, a food journalist and historianwho is particularly interested in ways in which our experience as children shapes what we like and what we choose to eat, and Professor Charles Godfray, the Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, who will help us to to put questions about choice in the context of health environment co-benefits of diet change.

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion

How can policy makers be empowered to make population-level public health interventions? Politicians often know what needs to be done, but may be constrained by adverse public perception. There are also problems regarding the relative power of the food and drink industry and concerns regarding potential job losses and GDP pressures from a policy change. Public discourse has to be stimulated so that people are supportive of government-led interventions, and we need more data regarding how and why public discourse changes.

How can policy makers in different areas collaborate to create mutually beneficial initiatives? Different aspects of health, food and the environment will often be the responsibility of different government departments resulting from anachronistic divisions. Collaboration and clear decision-making pathways are needed. 

Can we apply lessons from marketing to public health interventions? Marketing and advertising companies can often gain quick insights without being constrained by the need for time-consuming randomised control studies. Researchers need to engage with industry as well as generate evidence and get it into policy faster to avoid the addressed policy question no longer being relevant by the time action is taken.

How can we effect change in society’s relationship with food? This is an area that has become very complicated, as there are often conflicting, evolving or overwhelming levels of advice that can lessen the efficacy of public health messages. Researchers need do a better job of being an honest broker of knowledge, summarising what is and is not a good diet for people to construct advocacy positions.

How severely does the growing urban environment impact on our food habits? Urbanisation is happening at an unprecedented rate and this is changing our relationship with and knowledge of the food system. Understanding the social, cultural, economic and physical environments that influence our food choice is crucial.

Should measures to improve diet be led by supply or demand? At the moment the former takes precedent, but perhaps this should not be the case. How can we encourage people to demand something different and make the ‘right’ demands? Does this require more education or the encouragement of public curiosity?

Is it better to focus on a pleasure principle instead? Our understanding of food can be cultural and ritualistic. Can we use food rituals to build a web of value around healthy food? Encouraging pleasure to be associated with healthy food may be more effective than negative messaging about health. Conversely, overcoming disgust (or redirecting it towards unhealthy food) could be a future avenue of research.

To find out more about this theme or the meeting, please e-mail Dr Rosamunde Almond ().

Bee Wilson's recent book, FIRST BITE, draws on current research from both neuroscience and psychology, and her experience parenting three children and visiting numerous school canteens, as well as talking to dieticians, biologists and consumer researchers, to look at where our food habits come from; and what it would really take to change them for the better.

Read a review of the book