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NeuroFAST at science festival in Gothenburg - a success story

A curious and relatively young audience of about 40 people had gathered to learn from NeuroFAST coordinator Professor Suzanne Dickson who gave a clear and informative public talk at the International Science Festival in Gothenburg. On the topic “Food Addiction – fact or fiction” Professor Dickson covered many aspect of human obesity, with focus on food and reward. In a digestible way she showed the severity of the world obesity epidemic and explained the complexity of the underlying physiological mechanisms leading to an overweight population. Everybody that listened to Professor Dickson said they gained new insight on the topic, and most strongly agreed that the presentation was both enjoyable and interesting.

The International Science Festival in Gothenburg is the largest festival of knowledge in Sweden and one of the leading popular science events in Europe. It is a meeting place where scientists are given the opportunity to present their research in an easily digestible form to general public. Each year the festival attracts around 70,000 visits, with a program of almost 350 unique lectures, workshops, debates and activities.

On the topic “Food Addiction – fact or fiction” Professor Suzanne Dickson opened up her talk by telling us that Food is a natural reward that we as humans like, temp and crave, which is good because it will keep us alive. These rewarding properties can however in some of us lead to an abusive behavior like those observed in alcoholics and drug addicts, and food becomes harmful. Professor Dickson stressed the importance of understanding the mechanisms that would change a normal eating behavior to that of a behavior filed with anxiety and guilt.

Afterwards, some listeners took the opportunity to discuss "food addiction" with Professor Dickson, and others were busy taking notes.

In fact, feeding behavior was the main recurring theme of Professor Dickson’s talk and she informed the audience in a scientifically, yet understandable, way that today we have little or no evidence that different components in food show addictive properties. “Food addiction”, if it exists, only relates to a minority of obese individuals, and would be classified as a behavioral addiction rather that a substance based addiction; “Food addiction relates more to compulsive gambling than heroin addiction”, she said. This statement came as a surprise to many in the audience, and some were really surprised that we can’t say that sugar is addictive. The reaction from the audience on this topic may be explained by how media over the last years have had an enormous impact on how people think about food and addiction. Professor Dickson brought this up in her presentation, showing numerous examples from actual news articles and popular press items where research on this topic was heavily overstated with bold headlines such as “Food as addictive as heroin” whiles the actual scientists were more cautious and balanced when interpreting their studies. She explained the importance of being objectively critical to such articles.

Professor Dickson successfully helped the audience to think critically regarding issues involving “food addiction”. She also showed them the scientific base of our current understanding and knowledge regarding reward in relation to food and that careless use of the term “food addiction” could be problematic. Through evaluation forms handed out after the presentation, everybody expressed the educational value of the talk by answering “yes” on the question “Did you learn something new from the event?”. On the question “What did you learn from the event?” people wrote general comments like “New insight in the field” but also spot on comments like “The lack of evidence for single food compounds to cause addiction”. Nearly all agreed that the event was both enjoyable and interesting, and on the question “What did you enjoy most about the event?” people wrote for example “Science made understandable” and “The careful approach to this issue, showing whether certain facts have scientific evidence, while still making an enjoyable presentation”, statements which nicely summarizes Professor Dickson’s presentation.

Thanks to our excellent NeuroFAST dissemination team; Sue Bird and Julian Mercer who marked the way by earlier making a similar event at the British Science Festival, we managed to pull off this successful event. We hope that this will encourage not only other NeuroFAST researchers to do a similar event, but also to encourage other researchers across Europe to disseminate their research and to reach out to the general public.

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Page Manager: Erik Schéle|Last update: 5/3/2013

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