Centre for Research Excellence makes its mark in global obesity policy

A multidisciplinary, multi-university research team is influencing obesity and food policies around the world in the battle against obesity.

Thirty-five researchers from Deakin, the University of Queensland, George Institute for Global Health, the University of Auckland and Fiji National University recently gathered at the Burwood Campus for the fourth annual meeting of the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Obesity Policy and Food Systems.

Led by Deakin University’s Centre for Population Health Research (CPHR), the group was successful in being awarded a five-year $2.5M grant in 2012 as part of the NHMRC’s Centre for Research Excellence (CRE) Scheme.

The CRE comprises a multi-disciplinary team of researchers with backgrounds in epidemiology, nutrition, health economics, food policy, health services research and advocacy.

Centre for Population Health Research Group

The overall aim of the Centre is the development and successful implementation of potent and sustainable obesity prevention policy actions. It has developed a coordinated, innovative research agenda that addresses diverse sectors (both health and non-health), differing levels (international, national, state and community) and upstream drivers of obesity (particularly the food system, urban development, transport and other environmental factors).

Centre Director, Professor Rob Carter from Deakin Health Economics, said: “Many facets of the Centre’s research portfolio are ground-breaking, with researchers being at the forefront of international research. They are providing the evidence base to help policy makers around the world make choices that are most likely to make a difference to their population’s diets.”

One strand of the CRE centres on the work of INFORMAS, an International Network for Food and Obesity / non-communicable Diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support. It has developed a series of modules to monitor and benchmark food environments that have now been taken up in more than 20 countries.

Federal and state jurisdictions in Australia were recently assessed through these modules regarding their policies for preventing obesity and creating healthier food environments. The assessments received wide attention and are likely to play an important role in influencing Australian food policy.

Another example is the Centre’s innovative research around the application of systems thinking to obesity prevention. The team has been instrumental in advancing the use and application of group modelling building techniques to obesity and related topics, in a range of communities within Australia and overseas.

Group model building (GMB) has become a widely used approach to encourage systems thinking that improves problem understanding, increases engagement in systems thinking, builds confidence in the use of systems ideas and develops consensus for action among diverse stakeholders.

A PhD student funded by the CRE has applied such techniques in Fiji to the challenging issue of getting more evidence into food policy. This approach has been received enthusiastically by officers from a number of government ministries who participated in a series of workshops.

One of the key deliverables of the CRE will be the development of a league table of interventions, in terms of their economic credentials to address obesity. The table will include upstream, population level interventions from both the health and non-health sectors. Many of the interventions, such as active transport initiatives, changes in the supermarket environment and food reformulation initiatives, have not been evaluated previously for their economic merit in the obesity prevention context.

“The table will be an important tool for policy makers to select the most affordable and effective interventions to prevent obesity,” said Professor Marj Moodie, Coordinator of the CRE.

A key criteria for the NHMRC in assessing CRE grants is capacity building of the research workforce.

“The CRE has been particularly successful in this regard. We have a cohort of 20 PhD students, half of whom are funded directly as a result of the grant. To date, four have graduated. Most of the others are due to complete this year,” said Professor Moodie.

“One innovative approach has been the embedding of two PhD students within the Victorian Department of Health to provide them with close insights into the policymaking processes. The CRE has also hosted a number of visitors over the past four years, and conversely, many of our younger researchers have enjoyed placements with collaborating institutions overseas.”

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