Susan answers our questions
What attracted you into the field of nutrition?
I have to say it was slightly by chance. I was musing on various vocational courses related to medicine and dietetics happened to be flavour of the month when I filled in my university application form. Although I qualified as a dietitian I quickly discovered that I loved research, so in fact my career has mostly been spent as a nutrition scientist. It’s a fascinating area to work and a brilliant combination of biological, social, economic and even political sciences.
Which area of health and nutrition has been a persistent challenge?
Making change happen! Of course there is lots we still don’t know, but if we could better understand how to support people to make the changes in their diet that we already know are important, we would see a huge improvement in the nation’s health. There is so much we need to do, everything from improving cooking skills, helping people to use nutrition labels on food packaging, and developing behavioural strategies to lose weight, right through to the changes in policy which would make it much easier for people to make healthy choices. It seems astonishing to me that we haven’t yet managed to ensure that our hospitals offer healthy food – for patients, staff and visitors.
What – either from industry, research, regulatory bodies or public responses to your work – has surprised you most over the last few years?
Recently I’ve become very aware of the impact that what we eat has on the environment. We’ve just started a major new research project with colleagues across Oxford University, funded by the Wellcome Trust, to understand how we can create a healthy and sustainable food system, with an emphasis on reducing the amount of meat and dairy products we consume. I’m trying to put this into practice myself. It takes real effort to change long standing habits and I’m having to learn some new recipes, but it’s made my cooking much more interesting.
Where do you think you have made the most impact on the nation’s diet?
A few years ago I chaired a committee including policymakers, industry and public health professionals to discuss and agree action by industry to reduce the amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt in food. There is still lots to do, but the UK is leading the world in reformulating food products. For example, our bread contains half the salt it did a decade ago and the sugar content of drinks is gradually decreasing. The good thing about this approach is that even if people don’t change the foods they choose, they still get a health benefit – health by stealth. I’m proud of having been a small part of that process.
What are your favourite foods to eat with friends?
Dinner with friends is probably my favourite way to spend an evening. I enjoy growing a lot of my own fruit and vegetables, so the menu depends on the time of year – or what is blocking up the freezer! Last weekend I served steamed asparagus, then a fish stew with a salad of green beans, peas and spinach, followed by baked rhubarb and pannacotta.
Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
I don’t feel guilty about enjoying food, but my dream day would definitely involve tea in a china cup and a freshly baked scone at 4.30pm.