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Interview: Marion Hetherington, Professor of Biopsychology, Leeds University

30 June 2017

‘If I could change food policy, I’d encourage mothers to breastfeed’

Give a Child a Hope: Marion Hetherington with Bishop Lugolobi

Give a Child a Hope: Marion Hetherington with Bishop Lugolobi

I’m interested in the interface be­­tween the need to eat for survival, and the pleasure of eating in soci­eties where food is plentiful. Ap­­petite is driven by need, but in most Westernised societies the prob­lem we face is that of an obesity epi­demic.


We have a genotype which has ensured that we can survive well through scarcity, but we do not adjust as well to excess. We know that appetite control is asymmetrical — not adapted to the modern food environment where food is cheap, available, and highly processed to be optimally pleasant.


Brain reward centres are involved in supporting survival behaviours such as hunger and thirst, and our appetite system is extremely good at withstanding scarcity; but, in a country like ours, or the United States, or Australia, we have food which is relatively cheap, and manu­­­­facturers do everything in their power to make food as tasty as they possibly can. We have a food system for hunter-gatherers, but now we have more than enough food high in the sugar, fat, and salt that we require only in smaller amounts.


Nauru and Tonga, in the Pacific Islands, have the highest rates of obesity on the planet. The World Health Organization says that there is a genetic tendency to obesity there. It was controlled in their traditional diet, but it’s been dis­rupted by im­­porting Australian pro­cessed food.


Our diet has changed radically, too: wartime rationing was perfect for meeting our needs, and people had active lives. Rationing was the perfect nanny-state intervention.


Nobody is going to advocate ra­­tion­ing now. People like choices and eating out and highly pleasur­able food.


We don’t teach home economics any more; so it’s no wonder we have a crisis. We can teach children about seasonal eating, eating well, cooking well.


We look at countries like France and Switzerland, where people are generally slim. They have high economies and good food, but they don’t graze all the time. The French are very keen on educating the palate, too: appreciating flavours rather than thinking of food — as we do — in terms of fuel, nutrition, and energy. Even when they eat a Big Mac, it’s shown that they take twice as long as Americans to enjoy it; and maybe they will enjoy it more and eat a little less at the next meal.


I teach classes on nutrition and behaviour, including anorexia of ageing [decrease in food intake in old age], infant feeding, and eating disorders; and I lead a module on eating disorders for the Level-3 B.Sc. Psychology programme.


I lead a team of early-career and Ph.D. researchers investigating vari­ous aspects of the psychology of eating behaviour. I follow a lifespan ap­­proach; so my students and team members investigate food intake, choice, and preference in early life, since eating habits established in childhood track into adulthood, and have a profound influence on health and well-being. I also investigate the loss of appetite in older adults.


If I could change food policy, I’d encourage mothers to breastfeed, and, second, wean with vegetables first. I’d encourage young children to eat vegetables before they tend to get fussy, so they already have pre­f­erences for good eating. From a psy­chological perspective, flavour ex­­­­perience starts in utero, because the foetus swallows a lot of amniotic fluid, and we know that volatile compounds in fruits and vegetables reach the amniotic fluid.


We have an obesity epidemic: almost one third of adults in the UK are overweight or obese. It’s the most serious public-health problem of our age, and we’ll see dramatic increases in associated illnesses such as hyper­tension, diabetes, cancer, and coron­ary heart disease. This will cost us as a society in lost days at work, poor quality of life, and spiralling health costs.


Sugar tax is a punishment thing. People don’t like that. It doesn’t change their behaviour. What changed cigarette-smoking was to change the social norms. This is what really changes people’s habits. Besides, sugar tax always hits poorer people worst. Very wealthy people are already avoiding high-fat, high-sugar taxes.


Anorexia nervosa in young people involves genetic and psychological elements. It’s an individual, familial problem, not a population problem. Sufferers are very hungry, but they don’t eat, and have a sense of control over their appetite. The main thing is to treat the underlying psychological problems.


Older adults can become anorexic, and that’s because our genes are not destined to last 80 years or so. It’s a fantastic testimony to the good life that we lead, and it’s wonderful to see people like the Queen working in their nineties, but a lot of older people lose their sense of taste and smell, and the appetite system is more blunted. You might hear people say: “Tomatoes don’t taste like they did when I was a lass.”


Older people can sometimes forget to eat, don’t enjoy eating alone, and may have depression. Their anorexia is different from anorexia nervosa, because it’s unintentional. Mono­sodium glutamate can be used to en­­hance flavours for older people, along with better dentition and structured meal-times.


I’m a trustee for Give a Child a Hope, which provides partnership and support to the Revival Centre in Matugga, Uganda. The centre is directed by Bishop Ivan Lugolobi, who I met when he was a pastor visiting Ilkley in 2011. I heard about this through my choir, and I was inspired by his work and by his care for disadvantaged, orphaned, and vulnerable children.


The Ben Rhydding Community Choir is run by Keely Hodgson, the vicar’s wife. She teaches us African songs and spirituals, and organises fund-raising concerts in the band­stand in Ilkley to raise money for Matugga; and her husband is a trustee.


Bishop Ivan has a church, school, clinic, and vocational centre. I’m very taken with what he’s ac­­­comp­lished from one little room in a centre, now educating 800 children. It’s fantastic. He devotes his life to looking after everybody, and has six children of his own.


I became a trustee of the charity, too, in 2015, and went out to see the centre in 2016, which was great fun. My primary reason was to see for myself the challenges faced by him and his wife, Madam Allen, in look­­ing after our Champions — who are the children who are orphaned, or who have HIV parents, or are dis­advantaged. We pay for their fees and give them a little bit of support: uniform, shoes, and things like that.


I was also interested in investigat­ing the challenges in feeding a large group of children in a country where one third of the population is malnourished. I’ve been struck by the positive outlook the community has, despite all the difficulties they experience.


I’m looking forward to returning in July to meet my collaborators at Makerere University and Bukalasa [Agricultural] College. We have a joint interest with colleagues in HarvestPlus who wish to improve the diet of children and families in Uganda. Commonly, their sweet pot­atoes are white and low in vitamin A; so we’re looking at im­­proving intake of the orange-fleshed sweet potato to counter night-blindness, which is common in some parts of the country.


I’ll be talking to the Champions, and finding out how their education is going, checking heights and weights. If children aren’t nourished well, they can’t learn well; so we encourage schools, hospitals, and clinics to offer better food to the children.


I was raised in the Church of Scot­land, but left the Church aged 14.


The greatest influence in my life’s been my Aunt Janie, who left Glasgow in the 1970s to live her dream in California. She’s indepen­dent, feisty, and full of laughter.


I loved working in the States in psychiatry, and it was a lot of fun; but I like better to live in a place where we look after our sick and our poor. I find it very difficult to be where some of the most vulnerable people are bankrupted by chronic illness. I’m through-and-through a socialist.


I would like to travel the world one day — be a silver surfer who travels from one country to another, now I’ve been brave enough to go to Africa. But one day I’ll maybe retire to Scotland and have a view of the sea. I feel very landlocked in Leeds. My favourite sound is waves crash­ing on the shore.


I don’t pray, but wish for world peace and greater prosperity for the developing world. The capacity of humans to be resilient and deter­­mined despite adversity gives me hope for the future. Hypocrisy makes me angry.


If I found myself locked in church with anyone, I’d like it to be with Marie Sklodowska Curie, winner of two Nobel prizes and mother to a daughter who also won a Nobel prize. A greater role-model for women I cannot think of. She’s quoted as saying: “I am among those who think that science has great beauty.” I’d agree with that.


Professor Marion Hetherington was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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