Each day we’re inundated with messages about good foods, bad foods, treat foods and ultimately how Australia’s obesity numbers just keep climbing.
Associate Professor Gina Ambrosini, nutritionist and epidemiologist from the School of Population Health, has dedicated her 20 year career to nutrition research and hopes her latest project will go some way to explaining why young people eat the way they do.
Awarded a WA Health Department Merit Award last month, Associate Professor Ambrosini is working with UWA colleagues to test and develop new methods to measure the diets of young people and try to understand what drives their dietary decisions.
“In Australia two in three adults and one in four children are overweight or obese. Studies show young adulthood (20s and 30s) is the stage in life that poses a big risk for weight gain, it’s when we begin to consolidate our adult lifestyles and form both positive and negative habits,” she says.
“Whether we eat them or avoid them, most of us know what ‘unhealthy’ foods are, but the major challenge for public health right now is how do we make it easier to choose healthy foods?
“My colleagues and I are really interested to find out how the diets of young adults are affected by the built environments they come into contact with. By built environments we’re talking about things like cafes, corner shops, supermarkets, and fast food outlets near our homes or places of work and recreation. And then, if we live near a store, does it stock fresh produce and healthy options, or mainly convenience items and junk food?”
To do this Gina and her team are working with industry to develop two smartphone apps, one to measure eating behaviours, and the other to track where people are eating in real-time.
“From the data these apps provide, we’re hoping to be able to map young adult’s diets and their spatial interactions over several days,” she says.
“Once we know where people spend most of their time, we can focus on these hotspots and use secondary data to identify what food outlets are close by. We can then describe the ‘healthfulness’ of these food environments.”
This cutting edge research is one of the first studies to collect this type of data simultaneously and in real-time.
“We can talk and talk about foods that make up a healthy diet, but education isn’t enough. While energy-dense, highly processed cheap food is marketed everywhere in too-large portion sizes, and we have to go out of our way to find affordable healthy foods, Australian’s diets will continue to be poor,” she says.
“Our environments are so conducive to over-consumption and we need to change this. We’d like to make it easier for people to make healthier choices in the environments they live in and occupy most often and we’re looking forward to this research project and making some headway on this really important issue.
“If our research shows that food environments are a significant driver of what young people eat, we can then provide urban planners, local governments and policy makers with the evidence they need, to create healthier community environments.”