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£7.4 million study seeks to explain what drives our appetites

Image of a tape-measure and avocado

Press release issued: 5 February 2014

Understanding how early life experiences affect food choices in adulthood will be investigated as part of a major new European Commission-funded research initiative, ‘Nudge-it’, led by the University of Edinburgh and conducted by experts from 16 institutions across the world, including the University of Bristol.

Over 5 years, the Bristol-based Nutrition and Behaviour Unit (NBU) and Clinical Research and Imaging Centre (CRIC) will collaborate to understand how eating habits develop and the influence of hunger, fullness and portion size on food choices.

A mixture of brain imaging, behavioural studies and laboratory experiments will be used, and researchers will also interview families in their homes to understand the social and economic factors that affect people’s eating decisions.

The ultimate goal is to provide better evidence for public health policies aimed at promoting a healthy diet.

Heading the Bristol team at the NBU are Professor Peter Rogers and Professor Jeff Brunstrom who research the psychobiological controls of human dietary behaviour with particular focus on food reward, portion size and the role of learning and cognition. 

The NBU was the first group to develop a measure of the ‘expected satiety’ of foods and these tools are now used widely by researchers working in both industry and academia.  In this project they will be applied and further developed to understand dietary decisions. 

Professor Brunstrom and Professor Rogers will also look at associative learning and its role in the formation of flavour preferences.  Dr Jon Brooks of CRIC brings to the project an international reputation for research involving functional neuroimaging, magnetic resonance spectroscopy and diffusion weighted imaging.

The project also involves Dr Marianna Blackburn who has specific expertise in the field of human decision making.  Her research interests relate to the application of contemporary models of decision making to understand individual differences in human dietary behaviour.

Professor Jeff Brunstrom said: "We are delighted to be part of this wide-ranging international project on a subject of such immense concern for public health.  The factors that drive food choice are poorly understood.  Our Bristol-based team will be developing and implementing novel scientific approaches to better understand this problem and provide evidence-based solutions."

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