Focus on the food system not the individual, experts urge



TYPE Prevention Centre News

Meeting to discuss collective progress in four years of nutrition research at the Prevention Centre, chief investigators and researchers said Australian research had previously tended to focus on individuals and their health conditions rather than the wider food and nutrition systems, and on local projects rather than national level policies and processes.

Much is known about what needs to happen to improve population nutrition. International bodies such as the World Health Organization and the Word Cancer Research Fund have been collating examples of effective strategies. The focus should now be on implementing those policies, participants at the meeting said.

Leading risk factor

Professor Amanda Lee, a Senior Adviser with the Prevention Centre, said poor diet was the leading preventable risk factor contributing to death and disability in Australia and globally, yet less than 1 per cent of Australians followed the NHMRC dietary guidelines for healthy eating.

“There is huge international consensus about what we need to do to have healthy, sustainable, equitable diets, but the key issue in Australia is around implementation,” she said.

Several Prevention Centre projects have focused on nutrition, including Professor Lee’s project on the price and affordability of healthy food, Professor Sharon Friel’s project on healthy and equitable food systems, Dr Gary Sacks’ project benchmarking obesity policies, and Dr Sumithra Muthayya’s project on food security in urban Aboriginal communities.

Taken together, the findings of these projects have shed light beyond individual behaviour change to what needs to happen across the food environment, how to monitor jurisdictions and hold them to account, what key structural policy issues need to be addressed, and what should be done in other policy domains beyond health.

From local to global

The projects have provided insights into unhealthy eating from the local community level – such as the importance of adequate public transport to enable access to healthy food – to State and Territory level and through to Federal level, where they have informed discussions on whether the GST should be extended to include basic, healthy foods.

Professor Lee said the research had come at an important time, when Australia’s previous nutrition plans and preventive health strategies had passed their end date and there had been a disinvestment in several states in their nutrition workforce.

Professor Friel, from the Australian National University, said the Prevention Centre was now in a good position to influence research, policy and practice to increase the focus beyond individual-level action to the wider food and nutrition system plus other policy areas.

“We have developed new conceptual ways of thinking about food and nutrition,” Professor Friel said.

“I think we have made some real methodological innovations, and collectively our work speaks to a whole load of intersectoral policy issues at different scales, from local communities all the way through to the global level.”