Supporting beneficial dietary behaviour change

Our existing dietary behaviours represent a major obstacle to achieving current nutrition targets (e.g. Scottish Government Dietary Goals for Scotland; Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition).  For example, over-consumption of calories is the main cause of overweight and obesity in the human population, and healthier (reduced calorie) alternatives are available to many of the foods and drinks contributing these calories.  A major difficulty is that existing dietary behaviours often have habitual components (i.e. they are automatically cued with little or no conscious engagement) having been repeatedly and frequently carried out over extended periods of time. Individuals may also have taste preferences for the less healthy options. Finding effective ways of supporting individuals in establishing new and healthier eating habits, and taste preferences, is crucial. Most preferences are learned over time via repeated exposure. Repeated exposure to the taste of healthier alternatives, in association with specific conditions or contexts, could facilitate the development of habits that then become the default preference.

Research Focus

FHIS Science Bytes - Prof. Julian Mercer video

It is generally accepted that the public health issues around non-communicable disease (e.g. cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension) require a population level shift towards healthier diets that are lower in sugar, fats and calories, and higher in fibre. The latest revision of the Dietary Goals for Scotland ( has seen a halving of the recommended level of free sugar intake as a proportion of total energy intake, and an increase in recommended levels of dietary fibre consumption. The new free sugar goal, if not resulting in compensatory energy intake elsewhere in the diet, should reduce the risk of developing obesity as well as improving dental health.

The objective of supporting the transition to a healthier diet needs to be addressed at a multidisciplinary level across all the relevant sectors – policy, industry, voluntary – as well as at the level of the individual. Consequently, food reformulation by the food and drink industry has a major role to play, and is being addressed elsewhere in the Institute’s Scottish Government-funded research programme. Behaviour change (especially in terms of food consumption) is often advocated as essential for long-term resolution of the overweight and obesity issue in the majority of the population. We need strategies for supporting behaviour change that result in beneficial reductions in caloric intake and a shift towards healthier food choices. This forms the focus of the research being conducted by Julian, Daniel Powell and Jackie Duncan, and funded by the Scottish Government. The research is addressing how habits are established and develop with time, particularly with regard to sugary food and drink, and also aims to provide optimal strategies to support motivated individuals trying to adjust their habitual dietary choices.


NeuroFAST  - NeuroFAST ( is a project on food addiction funded by the European Union Seventh Framework Programme. Completed March 2015.
Full4Health – Full4Health is a project of food-gut-brain signalling of hunger and satiety funded by the European Union Seventh Framework Programme, and co-ordinated by Julian. Completed January 2016. See for more details.
SATIN - ‘Satiety innovation’ ( is a project aiming to develop new satiety-enhancing food products that can help with energy intake and weight control and is funded by the European Union Seventh Framework Programme. Completing December 2016.

  • Cassie, N., Anderson, RL., Wilson, D., Pawsey, A., Mercer, JG. & Barrett, P. 'Body weight loss, effective satiation and absence of homeostatic neuropeptide compensation in male Sprague Dawley rats schedule fed a protein crosslinked diet'. Appetite, vol 117, pp. 234-246.
    [Online] DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2017.06.029
  • Bake, T., Baron, J., Duncan, JS., Morgan, DGA. & Mercer, JG. 'Arcuate Nucleus Homeostatic Systems Reflect Blood Leptin Concentration but not Feeding Behaviour during Scheduled Feeding on a High Fat Diet in Mice'. Journal of Neuroendocrinology.
    [Online] DOI: 10.1111/jne.12498
  • Barrett, P., Mercer, JG. & Morgan, PJ. (2016). 'Preclinical models for obesity research'. Disease Models & Mechanisms, vol 9, no. 11, pp. 1245-1255.
    [Online] DOI: 10.1242/dmm.026443
    [Online] AURA: 1245.full.pdf
  • Amin, T. & Mercer, JG. (2016). 'Full4Health: Understanding food-gut-brain mechanisms across the lifespan in the regulation of hunger and satiety for health'. Nutrition Bulletin, vol 41, no. 1, pp. 87-91.
    [Online] DOI: 10.1111/nbu.12193
  • Amin, T. & Mercer, JG. (2016). 'Hunger and Satiety Mechanisms and Their Potential Exploitation in the Regulation of Food Intake'. Current Obesity Reports, vol 5, no. 1, pp. 106-112.
    [Online] DOI: 10.1007/s13679-015-0184-5
    [Online] AURA: art_3A10.1007_2Fs13679_015_0184_5.pdf
  • Mercer, JG., Johnstone, A. & Halford, JCG. (2015). 'Approaches to influencing food choice across the age groups: from children to the elderly'. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, vol 74, no. 02, pp. 149-157.
    [Online] DOI: 10.1017/S0029665114001712
Additional Activities

Julian is lead for Theme 3 (‘Food, Health and Wellbeing’) of the Scottish Government Rural Affairs, Food and Environment Portfolio, Strategic Research Programme (April 2016 – March 2021). He is also on the Steering Committee of the British Society for Neuroendocrinology, and is Editor-in-Chief of the society’s journal, Journal of Neuroendocrinology (

Research briefs for the Knowledge Scotland web site