“Why do people eat what they eat,” asked Prof Michael Gibney of University College Dublin (UCD) at a Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) conference in Dublin this morning.

Prof Gibney, who is head of the UCD Centre for Food and Health, outlined to the packed audience of 100 people in the Radisson Blu Hotel in Dublin that “food choice is the most complex thing you’re ever going to see and it remains one of the great challenges of human nutrition”.

“Our behaviour when it comes to food is tempered by the society we live in…for example nobody servers spaghetti bolognese at Christmas. So what we eat is determined by many things, in this instance Christmas, not the spaghetti bolognese”.

Another example Prof Gibney referred to was: “You might not be hungry at lunch time, but you still eat. People eat simply because it’s the time of day to eat.”

Prof Gibney stressed that looking into the past is an important way of analysing food behaviour. He cited man’s use of fire as a hugely important factor in our food behaviour.  On this Gibney noted: “The capture of fire by humans led to people living in closer communities, led to human’s shedding hair and led to us changing our diet.”

Another significant change in human behaviour after the discovery of fire was the division of labour, he said.

“We humans entrust our food supply to others, no other species does this”. Commenting on this further Prof Gibney said: “It is no longer about what a person can procure for themselves but about what the food chain can procure for us.”

The science that studies food regulation in food is completely dominated by biology yet food choice is about energy and balance, but nutrient imbalance is also important, he added.

“People can be slim and have lousy diets and they can be fat and have healthy diets so it’s about the balance of nutrients.”. He stressed that slimness alone cannot be the only driver of health.

In his presentation he asked the audience, “Have you ever seen a fat fox?” citing that a fox only consumes enough food to keep him going. “Animals don’t eat more food than they need, this is something only humans do. We are the only species that has the ability to over-rule our biology.”

On obesity Prof Gibney observed: “There are some who believe that obesity started in the Eighties with the advent of fast foods, soft drinks, snacks and it is his opinion that “obesity has been prevalent throughout history”.

Today’s FSAI event is being chaired by food journalist Suzanne Campbell; Irish Independent columnist Colette Brown; Colin Gordon, CEO consumer products, Glanbia; Kieran Murphy, director of Murphy’s ice-cream; Kevin Sheridan, owner of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers among others.

Related: Food accountability key