Combatting obesity: NHMRC Early Career Fellows try new angles

Improving Health and Wellbeing

Infants and young women are the targets for two new anti-obesity research projects.

Two Deakin University researchers have been awarded National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Early Career Fellowships.

The fellowships, in the Public Health and Health Services category, were announced by the Federal Minister for Health Sussan Ley in Sydney recently.

Both researchers will lead four-year projects that aim to improve understanding of important target groups, in order to improve public health across the country.

Dr Briony Hill, from the Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development Strategic Research Centre, will target women at the pre-conception phase of life, as a means of optimising health for mothers and their infants. Her project is entitled “A consumer-centred intervention designed to improve healthy lifestyle behaviours and weight management in preconception women.”

Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng, from Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), will focus on reducing infant obesity. Her project is entitled “Informing childhood obesity prevention: Describing dietary correlates of rapid growth, overweight and obesity across the first five years of life.”

Building a healthier new generation

Dr Hill – who is preparing to take maternity leave herself – explained that achieving a healthy weight before pregnancy is the best way to maintain optimal weight and health for expectant mothers and their infants.

“Fifty per cent of women enter pregnancy overweight or obese,” she said.

“Once women are pregnant, they are busy and facing a lot of stresses, so this is a difficult time to lose weight. If women can attain a healthy weight before pregnancy, it is easier to maintain a healthier weight during pregnancy and avoid conditions such as gestational diabetes, hypertension, emergency caesareans or a range of other complications.”

She added that preconception wellbeing influences the health trajectories of future generations.

“Maternal obesity is the single greatest threat to recent advances in the health of mothers and babies, consequently jeopardising the health of all Australians,” she said.

Dr Hill noted that understanding the best ways to encourage women to reduce weight before conception is a new area of research. Her team will spend the first two years of the project researching the behaviours of women in this phase, identifying target groups and the types of intervention that will be most effective.

The team will include researchers from the School of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour from Deakin’s Graduate School of Business.

Dr Hill has been at Deakin since she began her undergraduate degree in 2003. She is mentored by Professor Helen Skouteris, Associate Head (Research and Research Training) in Deakin’s School of Psychology.

“My research lies at the intersection between public health and psychology,” she said.

“Behaviour change is very complex. Most people know the right types of food to eat and the exercise they should do, but it is harder to understand how we can help them change these habits.”

Dr Hill emphasised that overweight and obesity before pregnancy, and excess weight gain during pregnancy, places infants born to these mothers at risk of later life obesity, and her research complements that of Deakin’s other new Early Career Fellow Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng.

Reducing infant obesity

With World Health Organisation (WHO) global estimates reporting that 41 million children aged five years and under were overweight or obese in 2014, Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng’s research is timely.

Dr Zheng, who arrived at Deakin University in January, after completing her PhD in Sydney last year, explained that the WHO “Ending Childhood Obesity” report notes that progress in tackling childhood obesity has been slow and inconsistent. Emerging evidence has associated rapid infant growth and later obesity. However, obesity prevention during infancy has not been widely targeted and evidence describing early diet, rapid infant growth and later obesity is lacking in Australia.

“Describing dietary correlates of rapid infant growth is imperative to clearly inform obesity prevention strategies and policies at a national level,” she said.

Her fellowship aims to describe the growth pattern of Australian infants, and to examine the dietary correlates of rapid growth during infancy and early childhood (first five years of life) and subsequent childhood obesity risk.

The study findings have particular relevance for Australian researchers and policy makers regarding revision of infant and childhood feeding guidelines and of regulations for infant formula and baby foods. The research therefore has the capacity to promote healthy growth and development of all Australian children.

It will inform future revisions to guidelines including NHMRC’s Australian Infant Feeding Guidelines, Australian Dietary Guidelines, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Nutrient References Values, and reviews of infant formula and baby food composition standards.

Learn more about the Centre for Social and Early Emotional Development (SEED) and Deakin’s Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN).