Policy lab on the determinants of food choice for a healthy and sustainable diet

In March GFS ran a three-day Policy Lab for early career researchers, exploring the biological, social, environmental, physical and economic determinants of food choice in the UK and globally. After a series of expert talks, the delegates were posed the question: considering the different drivers of food choice, what combination of interventions across the food system would have the most impact in encouraging healthier and more sustainable diets? To foster the generation of interdisciplinary solutions, the delegates were encouraged to form multidisciplinary groups and take a systems thinking approach. The resulting groups then went on to develop and pitch their ideas for a literature review detailing the combination of interventions they thought would have the biggest impact. The Policy Lab prize of £5,000 has since been awarded to the winning group to develop a policy-facing report, which will be published through GFS and presented to our programme partners.

Determinants of food choice for a healthy and sustainable diet

GFS will host an ECR Policy Lab on 19-21 March 2018, which will synthesise the latest knowledge and evidence in this area to better understand what determines food choice and to describe the best combination of interventions that would be most impactful in encouraging healthier and more sustainable diets. The winning team at the workshop will receive a £5,000 Policy Lab award to write a policy-facing report.

Call Text

Call status: Open

Application deadline: 19 February 2018

Summary

The Global Food Security (GFS) programme invites expressions of interest from post-doctoral researchers to take part in a Policy Lab on the determinants of food choice (e.g. biological, social, environmental, physical and economic) and the combination of interventions across these that will lead to healthier and more sustainable diets. Policy Labs bring together early career researchers from different disciplines to scope a policy-relevant issue, with teams forming at the workshop and then competing to write a synthesis report for the GFS programme. The winning team at the workshop will receive a £5,000 Policy Lab award to write a policy-facing report.

We seek applicants interested in interdisciplinary and systems approaches to a policy-relevant issue, who are looking for an opportunity to produce an evidence-based report that will be widely read by policymakers. The 3-day workshop will take place on the 19-21 March 2018 in London, and applicants must be available to attend on these days.

Researchers must meet the eligibility criteria to participate in the Policy Lab workshop. Researchers working in any relevant discipline can apply (including for example the environmental, biological, engineering and social sciences).

The major question that the Policy Lab aims to address is: what are the determinants of food choice and what combination of interventions across these would have the most impact in encouraging healthier and more sustainable diets.

Background

The world faces a major challenge, as obesity levels continue to rise globally. The World Health Organisation estimates that in 2016, approximately 1.9 billion people in the world were overweight, of which at least 650 million were obese[1]. The overall cost of obesity to wider society in the UK has been estimated to be £27 billion, with the NHS spending an estimated £6.1 billion on overweight and obesity-related ill health in 2014/2015[2]. The UK-wide NHS costs attributed to overweight and obesity are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050, with wider costs to society estimated to reach £49.9 billion a year. It is widely acknowledged that changes in the environment and organisation behaviour[3], as well as changes in group, family and individual behaviour, is necessary in order to mitigate the effects of obesity, both on the health of individuals, and to reduce the burden to the global economy of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

We also need to consider the environmental impacts associated with food production, with inflated demand caused by overconsumption creating additional burden on planetary resources and adding to greenhouse gas emissions – the agri-food system now responsible for about 30% of total global anthropogenic emissions[4]. The global overconsumption of protein is of particular concern, average per capita consumption 36% higher than recommended, with animal-based sources producing a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas[5]. It has been estimated that if the average UK diet was moderated to align with WHO nutritional recommendations, national greenhouse gas emissions would decrease by 17%[6].

Food-related emission reductions of this kind are necessary if we are to meet Paris climate change targets by 2050.

Though food consumption is primarily required to meet our physiological needs for nutrients and energy, the wider influences guiding our diets are actually highly complex, and encompass a range of social, cultural, psychological, economic and environmental factors working alongside biological cues to control our consumption patterns.

These include:

Biological factors, such as the need for energy and nutrients to allow our bodies to grow and function. Appetite guides the amount we consume via a physiological system linking the brain and gut[7]; hormones released from both the gut and the body’s fat deposits indicating available energy levels to the brain, which in response triggers the feeling of either hunger or satiety.  Microorganisms living inside the gut – known as the gut microbiome – are also thought to communicate via this gut-brain axis, stimulating consumption of foods that promote their own growth[8].

Economic access to food is affected by food price and individual disposable income, dictating the amount, type and quality of food available to different people. Relative affordability of foods can be measured by the share of household budget spent, the average household in the UK allocating 11.1% of their disposable income to food[9].

Physical access to food in terms of locality to and ability to reach different types of food shops and restaurants offering different selections of foods. For example, high exposure to fast food outlets has been linked to higher consumption of takeaway food and greater risk of obesity[10]. Food deserts can be described as areas with poor access to affordable healthy food, and are often considered responsible for obstructing healthy diets and propagating health inequalities[11].

Food preferences and habits, affected by tastes, upbringing, culture, religion and personal beliefs about certain types of foods. While such preferences operate at the individual level, they are learned through exposure to external determinants; for example, the food habits we learn from our families in early life have been shown to last into adulthood[12].

Modern social and cultural norms have resulted in more irregular working hours and fewer dedicated homemakers, encouraging wider consumption of convenience foods and higher incidence of eating meals and snacks outside the home.

Food information and education, whether from governments, schools, or food businesses, is now readily available through a variety of sources, providing a spectrum of information from broad dietary advice down to specific nutritional content of foods. However, over 50% of UK consumers report finding such nutritional information hard to understand[13], while some studies show that nutritional knowledge does not necessarily translate into behaviour[14], suggesting that food and nutrition education alone is inadequate to help consumers make healthy dietary choices.

Food advertising reaches us through a variety of media, providing significant promotion for branded products, shops and restaurants. Statistics from the Department of Health show that the commercial sector spent £838 million on promotion of confectionery, snacks, fast food and sugary drinks in 2007[15]; this kind of advertising has been linked to increased consumption of foods high in fat, salt and sugar, especially in children[16].

Globalisation changes the domestic availability and price of certain foods, influencing consumption patterns. For example: greater foreign investment in food business and infrastructure can increase local food production and availability; the global spread of food media can familiarise foreign cuisines and influence preferences; and liberalised trade offers wider import options, allowing countries to import foods more cheaply as well as import novel foods.

This Policy Lab aims to further understand what drives food choices, the trade-offs and unintended consequences associated with a shift towards healthier and more sustainable diets, and the combination of interventions that might have the biggest impact.

Eligibility

In order to be eligible, researchers should:

  • be currently employed as a post-doctoral researcher at a UK Higher Education Institute, Research Institute, or Independent Research Organisation that is eligible to receive grant funding from the Research Councils. More information about eligibility for Research Council funding can be found here. Post-doctoral researchers based outside of the UK will not be eligible.
  • have completed their PhD within the last five years. Applicants are therefore eligible if they have completed their PhD after 1stJanuary 2013.

Applicants will also be expected to demonstrate evidence of skills relating to the person specification, which is outlined below. GFS will assess candidates based on this whilst ensuring a spread of disciplines at the Policy Lab.

In accordance with The Concordat[17], researchers are encouraged to undertake Continuing Professional Development (CPD) activities, which can be beneficial for both the researcher and institution. GFS would like applicants to consider whether they would be able to designate adequate time for writing the report as a part of a team. We therefore encourage applicants to seek permission from their supervisor to participate in the workshop, and to develop the subsequent synthesis report.

Person specification

Applications should consider demonstrating the following skills in their application:

  • Team-working
  • Communicating research to non-experts
  • Ability to synthesise information
  • Leadership skills
  • Innovative thinking
  • Understanding of the Global Food System

Application Process

The 3-day workshop will take place on the 19-21 March 2018 in London, and applicants must be available to attend on these days. We are able to cover reasonable costs of childcare or other caring responsibilities to enable your participation at this workshop.

Please answer the following questions in no more than two sides, using Arial 11pt font. Your answers will be used to assess your application and to ensure you have the suitable skills and aptitude to participate in the Policy Lab. Please note that your academic publication or research track record is relevant but not of primary interest. Of greater interest is evidence of how you might approach interdisciplinary challenges, and demonstrating skills associated with the person specification.

Page one (maximum one side):

  1. Please write down your name, institution, and the funder of your post-doctoral position. Please also clearly identify your research area (For example biological sciences, economics, engineering, environmental sciences, physical sciences,  or social sciences)
  2. Please provide a brief summary of your professional background (no more than half a page). (Please note that if you are selected as a participant, information under this question will be made available to other participants to facilitate networking at the event).
  3. What expertise do you bring that is relevant to this Policy Lab, and how does this fit within the overall challenge being addressed? (no more than half a page)

Page two (maximum one side):

Your responses to these questions (no more than 150 words each) should demonstrate that you have suitable skills and aptitude to participate in the Policy Lab (unrelated to your research track record).

  1. What is your personal experience of working in teams? Please provide an example.
  2. Explain your current research to a non-expert.
  3. The Policy Lab environment is especially suited to individuals who are willing to step outside of their particular area of interest or expertise, who are positively driven, who enjoy creative activity, and who can think innovatively. Please describe an experience you have had in a comparable environment, which specifically involved interdisciplinary working.
  4. Why should you be selected to attend the Policy Lab and what would you personally gain from it?

Please send your completed application to policylab@foodsecurity.ac.uk. The deadline for applications is Monday 19th February 2018. Those invited to attend the workshop will be notified by week commencing 26th February 2018.


[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-obesity-and-the-food-environment/health-matters-obesity-and-the-food-environment–2

[4] Bajzelj, B. et al. Environ. Sci. Technol 47, 8062−8069, doi: 10.1021/es400399. (2013).

[5] World Resources Institute. Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future. (2016).

[6] Milner, J. et al. BMJ Open 5, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014- 007364. (2015)

[7] Wagner, G.C. et al. Food Technology 67(3). (2013).

[9] Defra. Food Statistics Pocketbook 2015. (2016)

[10] Burgoine, T. et al. BMJ 348, g1464, doi:10.1136/bmj.g1464 (2014).

[11] Cummins, S. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Health, Illness, Behaviour, and Society,

562–564, doi:10.1002/9781118410868.wbehibs450. (2014).

[12] Campbell, K. & Crawford, D Aust J Nutr Diet 58, 19-25. (2001).

[13] Chartered Institute of Marketing. Responsible Food Labelling – consumer perceptions and

what markers need to know as a result. (2014).

[14] Worsley, A. Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr 11, S579–S585, doi:10.1046/j.1440-6047.11.supp3.7.x (2002).

[15] British heart Foundation. Unhealthy food and drink marketing and children. (2014).

[16] WHO. Marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children. (2013)

[17] Concordat – https://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy/vitae-concordat-vitae-2011.pdf