Professor Jason Halford, now of the University of Leeds, UK, will take over as the new President of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) during this congress from Dr Nathalie Farpour-Lambert of University Hospitals Geneva, Switzerland, who steps down this year.
Jason’s face is well known to most of our delegates, but for those who don’t know him, this interview will give you a flavour of his career to date.
Q: Welcome to ECO2021 Jason. Unfortunately, online again this year instead of in sunny Malaga Spain! How do you feel about the last two years of our congress taking place online?
A: Thanks Tony, first of all I must thank Nathalie for all her hard work and considerable achievements over the last three years. EASO is a family and I miss meeting friends and colleagues and the social interaction. So much can be gained by meeting in person, and networking online is challenging. That said, the registration and attendance for both our last congress and this meeting have been record-breaking, with some 3000 delegates registered to date for this year! We are clearly reaching more people interested in obesity research, care, prevention, policy and advocacy. We will return to Malaga and I am greatly looking forward to it.
Q: Tell us a bit about your early life – where you grew up and went to University, and what you studied?
A: I was born in Blackburn Lancashire, and grew up there and later in North Yorkshire, so the North of England is in my blood. I studied psychology at the University of Leeds, completing an undergraduate degree and then a PhD there (1988 to 1995). In 1996 I took a research fellowship in the School of Nutrition, Penn State. This was the first of my two prolonged stays in the USA, a country I love, but I am and remain a European.
Q: You have recently moved to the University of Leeds, but before that much of your career was spent at the University of Liverpool, where you were Professor of Psychology. How then, did you become involved in obesity research?
A: Yes, I joined Liverpool in 1999 as a lecturer, and tasked with setting up a brand-new human eating behaviour laboratory, having worked in leading labs at Leeds and Penn State University. This lab became one of the largest facilities dedicated to the measurement of human eating behaviour and I became research group lead in 2006, and in 2010 I became head of Experimental Psychology, the Department of Psychology and also Deputy Head of the Institute for Psychology Health and Society. I gained my chair in 2011. In 2013, I was very honoured to host the 20th ECO in Liverpool, exactly eight years ago.
My first work in obesity research was my undergraduate project on serotonin (5-HT) receptors subtypes and satiety with Professor John Blundell and Dr Clare Lawton (1990).and my PhD focused on novel pharmacological treatments, and the mechanism underpinning their action, including sibutramine.
Q: What are your expert areas in obesity research, and what are some of the studies you are most proud of in the field?
A: Originally, my area of study was appetite control and anti-obesity drug development, and I published some reasonably well cited papers in my early career, but I moved more into human nutrition and the impact of nutrients on satiety. Both areas produced some interesting papers. I have maintained an interest here, which has underpinned two of the EU projects I have coordinated, SATIN and SWEET. I love working with European colleagues on these projects and value these collaborations. I am also lead investigator on SWITCH trial, the largest intervention I have led to date. I have written some excellent collaborative clinical papers with Professor John Wilding, now President of The World Obesity Federation. In Liverpool I learnt the value of interdisciplinary research. I have always regarded myself an obesity researcher rather than a psychologist.
Over time, I became more interested in the role of psychological states in eating behaviour (e.g. stress) and the impact of the food environment. Here, my 2004 paper on the impact of television advertising on children’s eating behaviour led to a major programme of research over the next 15 years, and over a dozen papers. From that small study, the work of the Liverpool team was to have significant impact on policy, both in Europe and globally. It is difficult to pick a single paper, and I have many more ‘prestigious’ outputs, but if I had to choose it would be that one. Again, this work led to excellent collaborations across Europe and globally, and some great friendships.
Internationally, I have worked on ACTION-IO and ACTION Teens. Both are important in stressing patient experience. More recently I have been focusing on issues of sustainability and health, and particularly food insecurity, and we expect some interesting data here. New collaborations, new friendships, a critical area of global policy.
Q: Why did you end up making the move to the University of Leeds? What are you working on with the team there?
A: After nearly ten years in management at Liverpool it was time for a change, and the Leeds opportunity came up. I guess in the back of my mind I had always thought I would return but I never imagined the role of Head of School would become available and that I would be asked to apply. I miss my Liverpool colleagues greatly; my career flourished there and I had some wonderful times at Liverpool over 21 years. Now I have joined a brilliant team at Leeds and am excited by the future. It feels like coming home in a sense, although I remain a Liverpool FC supporter (sorry Leeds United FC)!
Q: This year’s congress, as usual, contains so much variety. What are some of the sessions most of interest to you?
A: Some of our joint sessions with WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD Office) will be a highlight this year; WHO have been a longstanding partner and this year we will have four dedicated sessions crossing a number of policy areas. Themes will include work to promote healthy and sustainable diets, restricting digital marketing to children, assessments of digital food environments, and interventions for primary health care. The WHO NCD office will also present on the WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI). I am particularly looking forward to the Expert Q&A session on Sustainability and Food Systems.
I always look forward to hearing about new treatments, and this year we will see preliminary data from the new EASO ECPO EUROPEANS study (on the impact of the pandemic on people living with obesity).
Other sessions I will be attending include the EASO Workshop ‘Killing statistical zombies (for good), and the joint session on Weight Bias with our Canadian colleagues on Monday. The session on mental health and the joint session with ECOG on GLP-1 treatment in adolescents on Tuesday, the session on mental health and stigma, and the research gaps discussion session on Wednesday, and the personalised treatment session Thursday are all in my “top ten”.
See also the ECPO sessions on people first language (Tuesday), on the importance of the patient voice in advocacy (Wednesday), and on role play in the clinical setting (Thursday). We will also be sharing excellent ECPO video content on the congress platform, and I would encourage all delegates to view the EASO award lectures, including the prestigious Friedriech Wassermann award, which this year goes to Professor Hans Hauner from Germany.
Q: How do you see the obesity pandemic playing out over the next 10-20 years – do you think the world can turn a corner? What do you view as the key factors that need to change over these decades?
A: I don’t think any of us underestimate the challenge. We are seeing some excellent advances in treatment, both in terms of drugs and procedures, but also in how we may personalise care for people living with obesity. However, for all the new treatments that come online, we must question how scalable these are for a global pandemic. Across both obesity prevention and treatment, we need to look at changing not just at the food environment but the food systems underpinning this environment. This is even more difficult when obesity as a disease remains largely unrecognised and weight stigma and obesity bias and discrimination across society remains prevalent.
Q: COVID-19 continues to disrupt our lives. How hopeful are you of a return to normality throughout 2021? Do you think we can be hopeful of meeting in person at ECO 2022 in Maastricht?
A: I anticipate we will be in Maastricht in 2022 and look forward to our joint meeting with the IFSO European Chapter. Plans are already underway. However, there will be changes and we have to anticipate continued management of the pandemic. We have new digital innovations we will incorporate to enable access to those who cannot attend in person and for those wishing access to the sessions after the congress.
Q: What are some of your aims as President?
My original priorities were to continue to stress personalised approaches to treatment, and to recognise the lived experience of patients, and to continue to improve the overall food environment (essential for general public health, not only for prevention of obesity, but also for improving weight maintenance post-intervention). On the treatment side we need work to ensure People Living with Obesity (PLWO) seek and receive help far sooner in their struggles with weight, and that healthcare professionals better understand the full implications of obesity as a disease.
On the food environment we still need to push on marketing, advertising, nutritional labelling, reformulation and taxes. But much more than that we need to look at the food systems underpinning this. We need to make sure the healthy and sustainable option becomes the default option, and that those options are inexpensive, accessible, attractive and affordable — and importantly — are what people want.
The COVID pandemic and my work with ECPO have really brought home the mental health issues associated with living with obesity. Even before the pandemic, issues of depression and anxiety were widely recognised. However, loss of access to treatment and the usual coping mechanism, combined with isolation, loneliness and fear, have added additional stresses to the lives of PLWO. In response to this, EASO will be developing a new Psychology, Behaviour and Mental Health group to guide education, research, and advocacy in this area.
Q: Now we know about your career. But what about outside work? How do you like to unwind when not working?
A: I have no hobbies as such but a love of gardens and landscapes, and although my own garden is very small, I get lost in it for hours as there is always so much to do. And although I loved travel, and did travel extensively, the current pandemic has provided me with more time to potter about and to spend time with my son. I also came to exercise late, in spite of having lived with obesity, but it is now very much part of my life. I will never be a particularly competent athlete or sports person but I greatly enjoy the benefit to mental health and reduction of stress it brings. Sparring (boxing) and yoga are favourites although I am not very graceful at either! Again, I have made many friends through exercise.
Thanks Jason and we wish you well as the new President of EASO!
Thank you Tony! I look forward to a great congress. I am looking forward to meeting the national societies and their members and working with the EASO regional vice presidents (Volkan, Dana and Jorn), listening to your feedback, serving your needs, and providing support wherever I can.