Sue Backhouse Professor of psychology podcast

053: Susan Backhouse on eating and cheating


Sue Backhouse, Professor of psychology and nutrition

The episode offers an eye-opening exploration into some of the most emotionally charged and complex issues in sports, from nutrition to doping. Sue Backhouse, the featured guest, delves into her unique, holistic approach to understanding these topics. Early challenges and setbacks in her own life have enriched her professional outlook, giving her a nuanced view that refuses to oversimplify complex issues.

The conversation first tackles the intricate relationships people often have with food and nutrition. Emotional factors frequently drive behavior and choices, and Sue discusses the Capability Opportunity Motivation model of behavior (COM-B), highlighting that meaningful change involves not just motivation but also capability and opportunity.

Then, the topic shifts to the controversial issue of doping. Rather than casting those who dope as villains, Sue presents a nuanced look at the complex motivations and social dynamics that might lead someone to make such a choice. The role of social norms and group thinking comes into focus, providing an understanding that can either encourage or discourage doping.

Sue also underscores the potential pitfalls of quick-fix solutions, both in nutrition and anti-doping efforts. She advocates for open, fearless organizations where difficult conversations can take place without stigma, extending this to discussions about Therapeutic Use Exemptions and their complexities.

The episode aims to deepen understanding of why people may make unethical choices like doping, not to excuse such actions but to uncover their root causes. This can help those who aim to combat these issues to develop more effective strategies. Overall, the conversation challenges conventional wisdom, providing grounded insights into some of the most complicated and emotionally fraught issues in sports.

n at Leeds Beckett University is this week’s guest. Sue is an expert in the complexity around two huge areas – eating and cheating. Everyone’s a nutritionist these days, everyone’s a psychologist and everyone has an opinion on the issue of doping. Three emotive, convoluted and noisy areas for Sue to tackle.

What Sue’s research does is something quite unique, particularly so compared with a lot of reductionist studies that pare back all confounding variables to a level of control almost sterility. Of course, you need that level of meticulous control for some research but often important areas get neglected by researchers because they’re too messy. Equally what Sue is able to do is see through the clatter, the jumble and offer illuminating yet grounded findings and advice.

We explore the hows and whys of influencing athletes to adopt certain dietary practices and how underpinning motivation and behaviour are essential for change. Then we get into a rich discussion about why people dope, the context, knowledge, social norms, group think, can all be factors in people taking or not taking that step into violating rules and how people reconcile their minds that what they’re doing is ok. A fascinating area, one that I have spent my life staunchly and adamantly against and working to support athletes in an ethical and legal way. At the end of the conversation I felt more aware and understanding and perhaps slightly more empathetic towards a doper – NOT that I have lowered my stance – but by better understanding why people cheat I feel I might be able to help someone choose not to.

Show notes:

  • Sue’s formative years leading to her career in sport.
  • Resetting ambitions and dealing with rejection and disappointment and how this has turned into an advantage.
  • Complexity of behaviour on multiple levels towards food and nutrition.
  • The role of emotions and how it drives behaviour, decision making and the support required to be sensitive to.
  • Capability Opportunity Motivation model of behaviour (COM-B); a behaviour change model recognise that in order to bring about change one needs a capability i.e. education, training and skills.
  • Having difficult conversations and making sure everyone is on the same page with the same expectations.
  • Just telling!
  • Barriers towards nutritional adherence
  • What are the unintended consequences of some of these short term solutions?
  • Doping, “I just did what I was told…”
  • Social norms of dysfunction, the power of the group.
  • Unravelling the complexities of doping, the vulnerability, the goal directed behaviours, the protection of health, athlete identity and winning at all costs.
  • Differences in doping violations, team versus individual approach
  • Therapeutic exemption and the knock-on effect of the negativity surrounding doping
  • Fearless organisations and having difficult conversations


Sue on Twitter

Supporting Champions on Twitter

Steve Ingham on Twitter

Students studying sport and want to get into sports and performance, sign up to our sports science online courses

Take the next step in your career through our coaching and mentoring support,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *