I am delighted to share this conversation with Liisa Lähteenmäki, the principal investigator for WP1 of the EU MooDFOOD project. This part of the project is looking at both observational and experimental evidence on the bi-directional link between depression and food behaviour.
Liisa, can you please tell us about the scientific approach you are taking to understand the observational relationship of food-related behaviour with depression?
We are interested in how individuals’ food-related practices are related to depressive symptoms and therein the risk of depression. Several studies have found a link between depression and snacking or skipping meals such as not having breakfast. These food-related practices result in complex networks where options and choices around food purchases, food preparation practices and meal patterns are woven to daily and weekly routines that often define what we eat and when.
In the past, most studies have been interested in nutritional composition of diet or food intake per se without considering them as results of these various daily practice. We aim to study how different practices contribute to diet quality and thereby to the link between diet and depression.
At Aarhus University we are mainly interested in these food-related practices and at Vrije University of Amsterdam the primary focus is on psychological factors e.g. individual tendency to eat when having negative feelings or whether mindfulness has an impact on depression and depressive symptoms.
One of the key components of the project is the web-based intervention study your team is conducting. Can you tell us about how this was developed and implemented? And what is the significance for the project?
Using a web-based intervention, we are studying how people experience different kinds of suggested behaviour changes. Participants are offered advice on either changing their food choices, meal patterns, food provisioning practices, or training in mindful eating. Most nutrition interventions target food choices, but our interest is in whether targeting the behaviours around eating would be easier to make. The assumption is that making changes in shopping routines or meal patterns will also result changes in food intake without a need to think about single foods as good or bad choices.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, can help one pay more attention to eating and reduce ‘mindless eating,’ which often involves consuming energy dense options. As a control we run an intervention on sustainability advice which is not food-related.
In our interventions we provide participants advice, tips to follow and exercises to promote behaviour change. Our interventions are short term and we are mainly interested in the perceived ease of making changes in behaviour and whether the perceived ease is related to depressive symptoms. We hope that to find out if this type of on-line intervention increases individuals’ confidence in making changes in their food-related behaviour.
Food-related behaviours are embedded in our social environments and have several roles in addition to providing energy to the body. These activities can also have recreational functions and these functions can play a role in mental well-being that goes beyond diet quality.
We hope that our research results will widen our perspective in how to approach giving food and health-related advice to individuals and find out how targeting food-related behaviours can contribute to our mental well-being.
Liisa Lähteenmäki is Professor in Consumer Behaviour and Food Choice at the MAPP Centre, Aarhus University in Denmark. Her background iis n Human Nutrition and Psychology with a special interest in the role of health, novelty, and sustainability in food-related behaviours, widening the perspective from choices to food provisioning practices and routines, including studies on factors explaining food waste in households.