Five Questions with Jason Halford

Professor Halford, thanks for speaking with us.  Your research in appetite and behavior is well known and highly regarded, and readers may be aware that you co-founded both the Human Ingestive Behaviour Laboratory at The University of Liverpool and the Liverpool Obesity Research Network (LORN). What is the focus of your recent work? 

Our recent work has focused on the effects of bariatric surgery on motivation and mood, particularly issues around coping and alcohol misuse 18 months post-surgery in patients reporting no previous alcohol issues.  This work has brought us into many interesting collaborations with clinicians in the UK and across Europe, and we are currently developing a platform for a multisite study.

We continue to look at the impact of obesity and type 2 diabetes mono and dual therapies on appetite and energy balance. Working in collaboration with Dr Dan Cuthbertson and Prof John Wilding at the University of Liverpool, we are now developing protocols to analyze drug effects and inhibitor control as well as regulatory and reward function through the ENERGISE and RESILIANT projects.

Our goal remains to personalise pharmacotherapy in order to help clinicians prescribe the best available drug to meet individual patient needs.

In the policy arena, we continue our work focused on the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children, looking both at the impact of the messages themselves on child behaviour, and the extent to which regulation has (or has not) protected child health. 

As coordinator of the €8 million EU Framework Seven Satiety Innovation Project SATIN, your efforts will lead to development of novel foods for appetite control using new processing technologies to alter food structure. The SATIN project consortium includes seven small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), four industry and seven academic partners Can you tell us about your work leading this complex multi-stakeholder project?

SATIN is now in its final year and the project has helped refine an in vitro testing platform, essential to the SMEs involved, and has aided in the development of the European biotechnology sector.  It has also produced 80 prototype products, six of which have entered clinical trials and two of which have progressed into longer term studies, where data collection continues.  An ongoing multi-center study led by our colleagues in Copenhagen will examine the long term benefits of a satiety based approach to weight management.

No single food is likely to be identified as a magic bullet, but a healthy diet, containing a range of satiety-enhanced products for every eating occasion, might provide consumers a healthy and functional way of managing both appetite and energy intake. 

I understand that you are involved in a new project evaluating the impact of sweeteners on both appetite and food choice during periods of active weight maintenance. Can you tell us more?  

Yes, the SWITCH trial commenced this autumn and will carry on over the next four years.  The effects of switching to either water or low calorie sweetened beverages will be examined in the context of weight loss and weight maintenance in a design very similar to that of a recently published study from the University of Colorado.  However, we will be looking at the impact of chronic low calorie sweetener use on appetite and food choice, and attempt to discern detrimental as well as beneficial effects of low calorie sweeteners.   

Are there additional projects you are working on that the EASO community may find interesting?

We are currently working with a coaltion of colleagues in the UK to examine the relationship between household food insecurity and obesity.  In the US and other countries, data clearly demonstrate a relationship between household food insecurity and child and material obesity; the observed relationship extends to elderly populations as well. Some ethnic populations may also be more vulnerable while others may be more protected.  We note, however, that data from Europe is very limited and we currently face considerable challenges from austerity and migration.  It is likely that sessions on this theme will be held at The European Congress on Obesity 2017 in Oporto next year. 

The SWITCH study is sponsored by the American Beverage Association. How are you do you deal with the obvious potential for conflict of interest?

It is not unusual in the field of appetite research to work with industry partners, but in an area of controversy it is essential not only to register the trial and provide transparency about funding, but also to publish the protocol in advance and provide online access to information for all stakeholders. 

Clearly it is important to understand the implications of prolonged low calorie sweetener use on appetite, to determine whether this is a useful strategy in weight control (sugar swapping). Industry also has ambitious national and international recommendations around sugar reduction to meet. But it is equally important to note the limitations of research and not to over generalise from results.  This research will not examine physiological or metabolic effects of specific ingredients. There are also wider issues around the habitual levels of sweetness in the general diet.

In areas of health policy pertaining obesity (i.e. marketing to children) we do not work with industry.

Professor Jason Halford is Head of the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Liverpool and Chair of the UK Association for the Study of Obesity.

He undertook undergraduate and postgraduate study in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s focusing on satiety and the development of anti-obesity drugs; his study included early work on sibutramine. He has been involved in the behavioural assessment of potential anti-obesity drugs in pre-clinical models and humans ever since, including recent work on Rimonabant.

During the past 10 years Jason’s research has focused on drug induced weight gain, the effects of nutrients and fibre on appetite and hormone release, the effects of stress on eating behaviour, and on lean / obese differences in the expression of appetite. More recently, he has focused on the effects of branding and food promotion on childrens’ food preferences and diet. Jason is Professor at the University of Liverpool and Director of the Human Ingestive Behaviour Laboratory and the Liverpool Obesity Research Network.