Combating Obesity A Hill Worth Overcoming

Infants and young women are the targets for a new anti-obesity research project.

Dr Briony Hill has been awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Early Career Fellowships. The fellowship, in the Public Health and Health Services category, was announced by the Federal Minister for Health Sussan Ley in Sydney last week. Dr Hill will lead a four-year project that aims to improve understanding of important target groups, in order to improve public health across the country.

Dr 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 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 Business School. 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.

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