Health: Science of slimming

BEFORE you reach for another biscuit, take a second to stop and think.

Only eating when you're hungry is one of the cardinal rules that anyone who has followed a diet or healthy eating plan will be familiar with.

But reaching for the snacks for reasons other than a rumbling tummy is something that most of us have done, whether it was for comfort, consolation or celebration.

Now researchers in Leeds are trying to find out more about that and other relationships between the mind and appetite.

For at the Human Appetite Research Unit at the University of Leeds, a team is applying psychology to the way we eat.

In a warren of rooms at the University of Leeds's Institute of Psychological Sciences, the unit is a hive of activity.

Since Prof Louise Dye and Dr Clare Lawton appealed for volunteers for their latest study, they have been inundated with women wanting to shed a few pounds.

In one room a participant is being talked through a diet with the team's dietitian Fiona Croden. In the kitchen breakfast is being prepared for one of the participants, while in another area one lady is undergoing body tests.

They are all part of the Leeds Women's Wellbeing Study, one of the unit's current projects.

During the 12-week study, women are given one of two healthy diets to follow so researchers can assess the effectiveness of each.

Professor Louise Dye, chairman in nutrition and behaviour at the unit and one of the leaders of the study, said: "Dieting is something that's difficult to maintain.

"What we want to try and do in this study is to show people what works is following a healthy diet that can build into their lifestyle.

"Yo-yo dieting is not a healthy approach. Our study is about understanding what changes can be made and maintained."

But making dietary changes is only part of the research.

In addition, Prof Dye and her team are also looking at the link between food and feelings.

"In this study we are asking people to use diaries to tell us how they feel through the study," she said.

"We want to understand the triggers for overeating as often people don't eat because they are hungry, they eat in response to other emotions.

"We want to understand that better so we can give people better advice about dealing with things that prompt them to eat and drink."

Moods

The research follows her previous work which has included looking at the kind of moods that encourage you to eat certain foods, as well as food cravings.

Prof Dye is part of a multi-disciplinary team at the unit, which also includes a research dietitian, nutritionist and sports scientists who are looking at effects of exercise.

Dr Clare Lawton, senior research fellow and clinical trials co-ordinator, said the Leeds Women's Wellbeing Study aimed to help encourage women to follow a healthy diet for life rather than a fad which they were likely to give up on,

"It's about making lots of small changes which are manageable and maintainable and understanding that you can be a little bit flexible," she said.

"Some people have that 'all or nothing' approach. It's about understanding that overeating at one meal is not going to make you gain weight."

How food and appetite affects weight is Dr Lawton's area of expertise, with her having conducted trials of appetite supressants and anti-obesity drugs – but she said they were keen to look at how diet, rather than drugs, could be used to maintain a healthy weight.

With increasing numbers of the population being too heavy – more than a third of children leaving primary school in Leeds are overweight or obese – research like this could be crucial in future.

Already the team has looked at questions such as whether cutting out all fat in the diet or using lower fat substitutes was more successful.

"The substitution diet was the most effective because it's not making people move too far away from their original diet," Dr Lawton said.

"They're still eating the same foods but eating lower fat alternatives."

Snacking

The team has also looked at snacking and the theory that having snacks is unhealthy, but found it wasn't if they chose lower fat snacks.

And they also backed up the commonly quoted claim about breakfast, that people who eat the morning meal are usually slimmer than those who don't.

Prof Dye said: "Anything is better than nothing as it's more about getting the metabolism going.

"People falsely believe that skipping breakfast will reduce their calories but they leave their body in a fasting state for longer which is not good.

"But having a healthy breakfast is better than an unhealthy one."

Another study discovered that soy protein, which is found in foods like soya mince, led to people eating less than those who ate a non-soya meal with participants having 144 calories less in a day.

Rather than being academics far removed from the real world, the team's aim is to use their work to help change people's lives for the better.

Prof Dye said: "We want to try and use our psychology to answer some really important problems for people, in our case it's obesity and wellbeing, and women's health more generally.

"We are very much a department interested in psychology contributing to understanding some of the major problems."

l

Concern over A&E crisis funding