Introducing SHARe: Sheffield Hallam Appetite REsearch

As a Registered Nutritionist and appetite researcher at Sheffield Hallam University, the food and nutrition impact of the ongoing COVID pandemic has resonated with me.  We are only just beginning to understand the socio-cultural dimensions of the crisis; the emergent inequalities, challenges and opportunities for change and how broadly this impacts on food security, appetite, nutrition, and food behaviours.  In this blog I set out some of my thoughts and reflect on the relevance of our collective research expertise, as members of SHARe (Sheffield Hallam Appetite REsearch), a new CHEFS (Culture, Health, Environment, Food and Society) sub-cluster, as we move into ‘the new normal’.

The coronavirus pandemic that spread across the world throughout 2020 has shone a light on human behaviour, social injustice, inequality, and the fragility each person’s own world construct.  Researchers globally are still working through the science and social science lessons learnt so far and what this means for the future: the so-called ‘new-normal’.  The pandemic has laid bare the glaring inequities in food security between and within all nations, whilst also highlighting the link between overweight/ obesity and ill-health, both chronic and acute.  It is well recognised that higher BMIs present a significant risk factor with overall poorer COVID prognosis compared to when equivalent patients contract the disease at a ‘healthy weight’.

The world-wide high prevalence of obesity and overweight continues to represent a significant global public health challenge.  BMIs have risen steadily over recent decades and according to the most recent WHO statistics 39% of the world’s adult population and 18% of those aged 5-19 years are obese.  How to support individuals and populations to lose weight, or even maintain a healthy weight, has been at matter of much debate.  In July 2020 the UK Government launched its most recent obesity strategy to address the issue.  As, with my colleague Lucie Nield, I argued at the time, the strategy is both under-developed and likely ineffective in eliciting wholescale change such as is needed.

Energy balance lies at the heart of our understanding of obesity and, in turn, weight management.  But for appetite researchers such as myself, the pandemic has re-emphasised that biological need is rarely what drives food and drink consumption.  We eat because its lunchtime, because we’re celebrating, because cake tastes good or out of habit.  Ubiquitously there are hedonic, social, habitual, environmental and other drivers, alongside biological ‘hunger’, that lead us to ingest specific food and drink items at particular times in certain quantities.  I still eat Christmas pudding, even after the turkey!

In COVID-times, we’ve seen the Banana Bread Renaissance. Vogue magazine framed this as a way to make the most out of ‘the circumstances’ of the pandemic, resurrecting a ‘make do and mend’ war-mentality; it is also part of a wider rise in home-baking during COVID. In addition, the home-baking trend is likely driven by a range of reasons, from running out of staples as certain items disappeared from our supermarket shelves, to increased time at home and furlough, to the need, for many, to occupy children suddenly out of school and learning from home.

By the end of November 2020 take-home alcohol sales had increased in Britain by 18.1% (that’s half a billion litres) but this was reportedly off-set by an overall reduction in alcohol sales due to hospitality closures and lockdowns.  In line with fears voiced about the potential health implications of increased home drinking in lockdown, WHO Europe produced an alcohol and COVID factsheet  that highlighted that alcoholic products neither prevent nor treat COVID-19, and alcohol consumption comes with other COVID-relevant risks including impeding good decision-making and, with heavy use, weakening of the immune system.  It remains to be seen whether the new levels of home drinking remain as the hospitality sector opens up over 2021, in line with the Government’s roadmap, and if so, what the longer term health implications could be.

The Government’s ill-conceived ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme has been shown to have had limited effect on the UK’s restaurants and cafés. It was met with opposition from leading health experts who feared it would drive less healthy choices being associated widely with fast food options in particular, and has been shown to have contributed to the second COVID wave.

The academic COVID literature emerging around eating behaviours and COVID suggests that emotional distress and poor quality of life during lockdown led to increased emotional eating and more frequent binge eating.  It has also been found that motivation to pay for and expend effort obtaining food (across categories) was highest in those with higher COVID-related stress and highly processed and sweet foods had high motivating value across a range of measures of motivation.  The lockdown effect has also been shown to be highly individualised.  The ZOE COVID Symptom Study app allowed researchers insight into the lockdown effect on healthy behaviours.  Findings have shown that for many with the unhealthiest lifestyles pre-lockdown, the gains and improvements made in diet, physical activity levels and sleep were greater than those who were healthier to start with.

So, what is the ‘new normal’ for appetite research?  A recent BNF guest blog captures the outcomes from an MRC-funded workshop I was fortunate enough to attend.  It outlines opportunities for reformulation and innovation for health, ‘Big data’ to improve our understanding of appetite, variability in response to obesity services and support for behaviour change.  The take away message: “Cross-discipline, collaborative research is key to driving change in this area.”

This is precisely the approach that characterises the SHARe (Sheffield Hallam Appetite REsearch) cluster, which has members from across SHU: psychologists; registered nutritionists; dieticians; exercise scientists; biomedical scientists; nurses; pharmacologists and more. The diversity of discipline of appetite research is well recognised and the wide range of research methods used has been subject to recent review authored by some of the discipline’s most significant contributors. As SHARe is reimagined as a new sub-cluster within CHEFS, the  Culture, Health, Environment, Food and Society research cluster, we have a unique opportunity to enhance our contribution, furthering and expanding the cross-disciplinary and collaborative work being undertaken to examine the socio-cultural dimensions of food and drink.  We’re so excited to move forward working together.

If you’d like to know more about SHARe, or get involved, please contact SHARe lead, Jenny Paxman  For regular updates from SHARe and CHEFS and to hear more about events and funding opportunities join our JISC-mail list, subscribe to the Blog and follow us on Twitter @SHU_CHEFS.

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