The Science And Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Resist Snacks

When I was approached to make a TV programme about salty snacks I was intrigued.

I think of myself as a healthy eater, but I am very aware that I often grab a bag of crisps particularly on a busy day. As I sat and chatted in a bar with the programme makers they explained that as part of their research they had just been speaking a neuroscientist who had scanned the brains of volunteers and discovered that even looking at a bowl of crisps provoked a reaction in the brain that was as strong as alcohol for an alcoholic. So what is it about the combination of crunch, carb, fat and salt that is making Britain a nation of snackers?

Snacks are a £2.8 billion industry in the UK and we are snacking more and more often.

I definitely wanted to find out more.


Day one of the filming, I found myself on a crisp production line in Yorkshire.

Here you can be in no doubt that this is a massive and clever industry. I watched as a potato was dropped onto the production line and just 14 minutes later it emerged as a bag of crisps. It was still warm! And they take a picture of every single crisp before it goes into the bags. Any crisp that isn’t perfect is removed. This is an industry that has perfected the art of making us come back for more. They have teams devoted to developing new flavours every year and they know we are very picky about our crisps.

The TV team asked me to keep a snack diary. Reviewing the videos I recorded, there was a clear pattern. There’s one clip of me in a petrol station at 7pm in the evening which seems to sum it all up. I am clutching a packet of Wotsits and explaining that I have skipped lunch, I had no intention of buying a bag of crisps, but as I went to pay for petrol I saw the bags of salty snacks and I couldn’t resist it. The neuroscientist was right. Just the sight of a bag of crisps when I was tired and hungry seemed to be irresistible.


When I went to film with Dr Tony Goldstone, the neuroscientist from Imperial College London, he was able to offer me more insights. His latest research suggests that if we eat high carb food, like crisps, it protects our brain from some stress. So, eating a bag of crisps might just make it easier to deal with potentially stressful situations.

Much of the most fascinating academic research on eating snacks has explored whether distraction plays a part in how we eat. Professor Marion Hetherington at Leeds University explained to me that “the double whammy” is to sit in front of a screen at the movies and have an unlimited supply of crisps or popcorn. If they are in a large bowl, not a small individual bag, and we are concentrating on the movie, we just won’t stop.

Blog also on Huffington Post

My friends have asked me whether making the programme has changed the way I eat, and I would definitely say it has. I now have much more awareness of what might trigger a snack attack, and accordingly my five bags a week habit is much more under control. I also know that when I do snack on a packet of crisps, if I am distracted or stressed I am likely to eat more than I need as I learned that if you buy a larger sharing bag you will probably eat it all in one sitting, nobody ever seals up a bag of crisps to eat the next day! I have also become far more conscious of my salt intake and try to monitor how much I eat on a daily basis. But snacking is a very difficult habit to stop, especially with a busy lifestyle, I think I am just far more aware of what it is that I snack on now.

Unreported World: Obesity in Paradise

Last month I flew to the Samoan Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to investigate an epidemic of obesity. American Samoa has the highest rates of obesity in the world – up to 93% of people are overweight or obese and one in three have diabetes; Samoa is not far behind..

Most people think of your typical Samoan and an image of a strong rugby player or sportsman pops up. But the reality is, the obesity crisis has little to do with genetics. The governments of Samoa and American Samoa are trying to tackle the crisis but we found out that both remote Islands are still being flooded with unhealthy processed food from abroad, as well as fatty offcuts of meet that are seen as unfit for human consumption in many other countries..

Me & Samoan Tavita

The Samoan islands are modernizing and with that has come a shift to a more sedentary lifestyle. We met 33-year-old Tavita (left), a former taxi driver who weighs 27 stone. He has high blood pressure, he’s close to kidney failure and doctors have warned him that if he doesn’t get fit he’ll die young.

Samoans also view imported food as being of higher status than local produce, even though it’s less healthy. In a communal society where eating is a central part of life, it’s hard to go against the grain and change your diet. Tavita has the odds stacked against him.

Me and Laurie May

We also flew over to neighbouring American Samoa, where we met 28 year old Laurie May. Diabetes has affected her retinas, meaning she has now lost 75% of her sight. She’s pregnant and if she doesn’t get her weight and blood sugar under control she could lose her baby..Laurie May explains that her mother also had diabetes and died at 48 from heart disease. Even though she’s expecting a baby, she’s still struggling to change her diet. “Soda was my addiction” she says, “If I don’t want to eat, as long as I have soda, I’m good.”

Back on Samoa at the diabetic foot clinic in Apia, doctors were fighting to save patients from having their limbs amputated. One woman, called Sina, was brought in with a severely infected wound on her foot. Diabetes has damaged her circulation and nerve endings, meaning she can injure her feet without noticing. The infection has got so bad her foot may have to be amputated. But despite her desperately poor health, Sina’s family bring her a plate of chips and mutton flaps for lunch. She admits she doesn’t actually know what diabetes is, or what causes it. I felt heartbroken when she looked to me for answers..

“Most of our diabetic clients have very little knowledge or education on what the diabetes does to their bodies," podiatrist Helene Stehlin says. “They’re coming in with these massive issues and we're pretty much having to start from the beginning on education.”

Nowhere is the crisis more apparent than at the hospital morgue on American Samoa. Fagaalu the mortician has been working there for 20 years. The biggest coffin they offer is three feet wide and can hold a body of 35 stone, but at least twice a month, the bodies are so heavy that a special, larger casket has to be made. He says the bodes are getting bigger and younger. “Now we see the old burying their young, we need to go back to the old traditional ways. We are a people of the land, we were built that way, that’s what made us strong,”.

This isn’t just a problem for the Samoan Islands though. A recent study estimated that by 2025 around one in five adults will be clinically obese, in fact people now are more likely to be overweight than underweight and as this nutritional transition from local produce to processed foods continues around the world, the World Health Organisation says Obesity is now killing more people than than malnutrition. It’s a global health crisis..

Watch Unreported World 'Obesity in Paradise' on Channel 4 Friday 28th at 7:30pm



Disabled People Must Be Seen On TV All Year Round - Not Just During The Paralympics

This week, I’ve being talking at the Edinburgh International TV festival, urging broadcasters and producers to get more disabled people on our TV screens and behind the scenes.

Next month, I’ll be co-hosting the Paralympics alongside RJ Mitte, Alex Brooker and a team of talented presenters the majority of who are disabled.

These amazing games are an opportune time to showcase the extraordinary talents of disabled athletes and encourage discussion on what it means to be disabled in the UK and the world today.

I feel super lucky to be co-hosting the games and am really excited by the fact there will be more disabled people on our TV screens than ever before, but this shouldn’t be something that just happens every 4 years.

It feels like an important moment, and one that we should feel proud of. But there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t have more disabled people broadcasting to the nation on a daily basis - at present it’s only 2.5%.

I would love to switch on my TV and see a disabled person talking about something they are genuinely interested in or acting out a part that doesn’t just focus on their impairment. It would make disability so much more familiar. And would make disabled people feel what they should - that we are just a normal part of modern Britain.

And it’s not just me, three in five (61%) disabled people believe seeing more disabled people on TV increases awareness of disability among members of the public, according to new research by the disability charity Scope.

We already know half of the British public don’t personally know anyone disabled and two-thirds of people admit to feeling awkward about disability.

That’s why the representation of disabled people on TV is hugely important and seeing disabled characters and presenters on our favourite shows could really help improve attitudes towards disability.

Fortunately for me, being disabled has never held me back and it’s certainly not been a barrier to my career. I’m patron of the disability charity Scope and I’ve just landed my dream job co-presenting the Paralympics in Rio but it’s not every day an opportunity like this lands in your lap. It’s a very tough, competitive industry but there are even more challenges for disabled people trying to break into the business.

So much more still needs to be done in terms of writing, casting and programme making to address the lack of disabled talent onscreen and in the media.

New research by Scope also reveals a staggering eight in ten (81%) disabled people do not feel they are well-represented on TV and in the media. However, the majority (77%) said that the coverage of the Paralympic Games had a positive impact on attitudes to disability over the past four years.

Whilst it’s true that the London 2012 Paralympics was a ground-breaking event, providing a catalyst to bring awareness to the general public and definitely enhance public perceptions, it seems there’s still a lot more work to do with making disability seem, well...just normal.

World's Worst Place to be Disabled?

‘You have to see it to believe it’, Shantha Rau Barriga, Director of Disability Rights for Human Rights Watch told me, when we met for a coffee on London’s Southbank in early November last year. The question I had put to her was, where in the world the organization would say was the worst place to be disabled.

She looked at me sternly, ‘Ghana’ she said. ‘I could tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me, you have to go there. You have to see it to believe it’.

Of course this conversation was somewhat contrived, we weren’t just two women with a passion for advocating the rights of disabled people, chatting over cappuccinos. We were recording an interview for a BBC documentary and both of us knew what the other was going to say. But months and months of research had been undertaken before this conclusion had been reached. Not only by Human Rights Watch themselves, but also by the production companies responsible for the content of the program.

The researchers and fixers on the ground in Ghana had been mentally preparing me in the weeks that preceded our trip, but as much as I felt I knew about what we were going to uncover in western Africa, Shantha’s words hung in my mind as we touched down in Accra and filming commenced.

Since the car crash which left me paralysed aged 18, I have travelled extensively and felt I knew what I would encounter whilst filming the program. For example, it is widely acknowledged that disabled people around the world, especially women, are ostracized, hidden, confined or abandoned. Further more, common sense would dictate that access to equipment, education and healthcare would be difficult, if not impossible, in developing countries and of course, the definition and cultural context in which disability is understood, is often shaped by traditional beliefs and religion, so there would inevitably be what I consider ignorant or uneducated perceptions of what causes disability.

But what I experienced was worse than I could have imagined, and Shanatha was of course right, I did have to see it to believe it.

“Prayer Camps’ line the roads that head north from the capital of Ghana. These camps demand high prices for the healing of the ‘spiritually sick’ and practices often include chaining, starving and torture of adults and children with physical and psychosocial disabilities.


We visited several of these camps, one of which, Edumfa, chains disabled children but we were unable to gain access with our cameras as the Pastor of the camp is highly suspicious of foreigners, following a report done by the U.N Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, who reported that Ghana’s treatment of persons with psychosocial disabilities, in particular the practices of shackling the mentally ill to trees, depriving them of food or using electroshock therapy without anesthesia, may constitute torture. This report was given to The U.N Human Rights Council in Geneva last year, but my journey there revealed very little had been done to address the plight of the shackled disabled in Ghana.

The saddest encounter I had however, was with a man who had a condition that appeared very similar to mine. Because of this I empathised deeply with his situation and was heartbroken and shocked at the state in which we found him. He was withered and frail, and despite being the same age as me, at thirty years old he looked like a child, terrified and confused, confined to his room for fifteen years due to the stigma that his disability carried.


Francis died nine months later. But the real tragedy lies in the fact that he is not alone, there are hundreds of thousands of others like him. Not just in Ghana, but worldwide. Confined and hidden, living with the curse of disability.

When I returned to the UK I found myself in a conflicted state. Much of my work efforts focus on campaigning for the rights of disabled people, and I am well aware of the fact that life in the UK is far from perfect. The recent cuts, especially of the Independent Living Fund, are just one example of the type of discrimination that disabled people still face on a day to day basis.

The UK is by no means the best place in the world to be disabled. But given that as a disabled person I am able to access the basic care, equipment, education, employment I need to live, I feel very privileged in comparison to the estimated one billion disabled people worldwide, of which 80% are found in developing countries.

But I believe that this paradigm shift comes with a responsibility, to continue to campaign for a better future for disabled people all over the world. Ahead of the UN Summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda in New York in September, disability campaigners around the world are calling for decision makes to take into consideration the one billion disabled in their new Sustainable Development Goals.

So that we can collectively work towards a world in which disabled people aren’t killed, hidden, abandoned, chained or forgotten but instead receive the equipment and access to education they deserve to be enabled to contribute to their society and be considered valuable, in every sense of the word.

Non Government Organisations like The Orthopaedic Training Centre and Physically Challenged Action Foundation are in much need of support.

Becoming disabled did not end my life, it started it, and I want the life lessons I have learnt as a result to be ones that in turn positively affect the lives of other people with disabilities and I dedicate this to Francis. We can not leave any one else behind.