Turning the tide of obesity

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

Turning the tide of obesity
Professor Judy Buttriss knew very early in her career that nutrition was where her heart lay. But these days, as director general of the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), it's not just nutrition research that puts demands on her time. She has to juggle the competing duties of running an organisation dedicated to disseminating sound nutritional information to a world awash with uninformed comment and fad diets much of it emanating from self-appointed celebrity 'experts' and tabloids in search of sensationalist headlines.

Buttriss has headed up the BNF since 2007, but spent the previous nine years as its science director. With a degree in nutrition, followed by a year at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with the eminent nutritionist Professor John Waterlow, a PhD in vitamin C from the University of Surrey, plus post-doctoral research into vitamin E and selenium, she brings a wealth of knowledge to her role.

But a major component of her job today centres on being an ambassador for the BNF: meeting with various stakeholders; serving on expert panels advising government and others; and presenting papers to an array of audiences.

As a charity, the BNF depends on the funding it receives from the EU, UK government, other charities and companies within the food and drink sector. Despite misleading reports in the press over the past year or so, which mischievously suggested it was in the pocket of the food industry, the BNF robustly defends its integrity and independence from any external influence. (As a Council member, this is something to which I can personally attest.*) "[Integrity and independence] are fundamentally important and we will do everything we can to protect those,"​ stresses Buttriss.

The BNF has around 50 manufacturing, retail and foodservice company members (three new ones including two from the foodservice sector over the past year), which accounts for less than 50% of its overall funding.

To reinforce the status of the BNF's independence: its governing council is dominated by academics many of the UK's leaders in their respective fields and other independents who together make up the majority on the Council.

The BNF produces a number of printed and online resources designed to increase the understanding of good nutritional science by young people in schools, the public, journalists and not least within food and drink companies themselves. It publishes its well-respected and peer- reviewed Nutrition Bulletin, which covers subjects ranging from ethnic to sustainable diets. It also operates two web sites: www.foodafactoflife.org.uk​, which is targeted at schools, and www.nutrition.org.uk​, which is its main website and offers advice ranging from diet and health during pregnancy to how to eat a sustainable diet. The BNF also organises a range of conferences and seminars, which often deal with contentious areas, such as the role high-intensity sweeteners play in weight management and hydration.

Early life nutrition

Over the past year or so the BNF has been concentrating much of its activities on early life nutrition. It has recently worked with the Royal College of Midwives to develop training resources for professionals.

Because of its expertise in the field of nutrition, the BNF has been particularly successful in winning EU and government research contracts covering the dissemination of nutritional science. And Buttriss attributes much of its reputation to the strengths of her senior management team, which includes science programme manager Sara Stanner and education programme manager Roy Ballam.

This year the BNF celebrates its 45th​ anniversary. It was established with the objective of delivering authoritative, evidence-based information on food and nutrition in the context of health and lifestyle. The rising tide of obesity means the role it plays in providing nutritional resources to schools across the nation plus the advice it gives to others from food companies to pregnant women will be crucial in helping to turn the tide of diet-related ill health.

To celebrate its anniversary, the BNF is running a conference at the end of June on behaviour change. "We are going to pull together some examples of what works and we are going to do it from a science and education perspective and a bit of theory and lots of practice,"​ says Buttriss. It also plans to launch some new initiatives with other funding bodies to celebrate good science and communication among students and people who have just finished their degrees both nutritionists and teachers.

Like any other successful organisation, the BNF has to ensure it adapts to meet the changing circumstances in which it operates to remain relevant to today's needs. To this end, it is actively seeking to expand its stakeholder and funding base, exploring new areas of income.

The BNF is preparing a series of online training courses aimed at improving the nutrition and health science knowledge of firms and people in the sector, which will be launched early this year. As well as courses covering basic and advanced nutrition science, the BNF is looking to develop a course around healthy catering.

Since the coalition government came into power in 2010, the BNF has also had to deal with the transfer of responsibility for nutrition from the Food Standards Agency to the Department of Health (DH).

While Buttriss is pleased that many of the individuals the BNF previously worked with at the FSA had moved en bloc to DH, she feels some aspects have been lost in the move. Most notably, she regrets that some of the very useful healthy eating messages available on the FSA web site have not been completely transferred to the DH site and those that have are not as clearly signposted. She also feels that some of the openness and public engagement that existed between officers and stakeholders has been lost.

EU activities

At a pan-European level the BNF has been involved in around six very large, multi-million euro-funded projects in which it has played the lead role in dissemination of the research findings. Under the seventh EU Framework programme of research, BNF has recently signed a contract for the Commfabnet project, which is about communicating the outcomes from EU-funded food, fisheries, agriculture and biotechnologies research to a wider audience.

BNF's role will be feeding information to young people in schools. It will also pull together the work of other parts of the project that cover the communication of information to consumers and to small-and-medium-sized enterprises, which are being led by other organisations.

The BNF's reputation is such that, under Buttriss's leadership, it has been able to breathe new life into a network of 12 European nutrition foundations, including those in Spain and Italy.

There is increasing recognition that co-ordinated action is necessary to reduce diet-related ill health. This must go across the board from education in schools and of health professionals to getting the public to improve their lifestyles and food manufacturers to reformulate products to make them healthier. The BNF clearly has the expertise and ability to play a major role in achieving that aspiration.

* Rick Pendrous is a Council member and Trustee of the British Nutrition Foundation.

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