Understanding how early life experiences may affect food choices in adulthood will be investigated as part of a major new research initiative.
The £7.4 million programme, funded by the European Commission, aims to find out what drives decisions of when we eat and the types of food we choose.
The research, led by the University of Edinburgh, will examine how eating habits develop and the influence of hunger, emotions, stress and economic factors on food choices.
A mixture of brain imaging, behavioural studies and laboratory experiments will be used. Researchers will also collect information from families about 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.
Eating too much or making poor food choices can lead to excess weight gain and obesity, increasing a person's risk of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. It is estimated that more than half of the UK population will be obese by 2050 so encouraging healthy eating is a major health priority.
It is known that factors such as stress can have a major impact on whether people choose a lower-calorie, healthy option or higher calorie, fatty foods. These effects can be felt in the womb and early childhood and can have a lasting impact later in life. The team is seeking to understand how such experiences in early life may affect eating habits in adulthood.
The five-year initiative – called Nudge-it – will be conducted by experts from 16 institutions across six European countries, the US and New Zealand. Specialists at the University of Edinburgh will receive £2 million.
Professor Gareth Leng of the University of Edinburgh, who is leading the project, said: "Our goal is to understand the physical and psychological factors that control eating behaviour, so that we can develop more effective strategies for encouraging healthier food choices."
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