National food policies under the microscope

Research news
12 March 2019

Obesity has become the major health issue of our age. An international team is investigating if national food policy makes a difference in four western nations, with the hope of finding a global path for the future.

The prevalence of obesity is continuing to grow, despite growing awareness that being overweight and having a poor diet are the leading cause of non-communicable disease, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in many western countries.

In response, a growing number of countries are implementing national-level food policies that aim to modify the food environment. In an international bid to measure the success of different approaches, a team of international researchers is assessing national level policies on food labelling, restrictions on food marketing, and fiscal measures to reduce sugar intake. The study will focus on Canada, USA, Australia, and the United Kingdom, with Deakin University researchers undertaking the Australian arm of the research.

The project is being funded through a $3.1m grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Canada is currently considering implementation of several new regulations, including mandatory front-of-package "warnings," comprehensive restrictions on food marketing to children, and fiscal measures to reduce sugary drink intake. Other countries are also implementing novel policies, including the UK’s sugary drink tax and alternate approaches to food labelling.

Australian Research Council DECRA Research Fellow, Associate Professor Gary Sacks and Associate Professor Adrian Cameron from the Deakin-based Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) will be Chief Investigators on the project. David Hammond, Professor in Applied Public Health at Canada’s University of Waterloo, is leading the international project.

The team will undertake a prospective cohort study of 16,000 adults (including 4,000 adults in each of Canada, USA, Australia and the United Kingdom). A detailed survey and 24-hour dietary recalls will be conducted annually over a five-year period between 2019 and 2024.

"This project will provide strong evidence of how policy change can make a difference to people’s health," said Associate Professor Sacks.

“The full dataset will be a very valuable and productive resource. Overall, the study will allow us to evaluate national nutrition policies using ‘within-country’ and 'between-country' controls over time.

“Canada has introduced some very good policies that the project will prospectively track. One important goal for us is to demonstrate to governments that the way people feel about particular food policies can change over time. For instance, when the sugary drinks tax was introduced in Mexico and the UK, levels of public support for the policies increased as people got used to the new measures. The findings have the potential to directly inform policy globally.”

GLOBE is a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, sharing its experiences within Australia and exporting its strategies within South-East Asia, England, the US, Canada and elsewhere. Its research focusses on: monitoring of non-communicable diseases; interventions with communities; food systems and policy analysis; and systems thinking for non-communicable disease prevention.

Published by Deakin Research

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Associate Professor Adrian Cameron (top) and Associate Professor Gary Sacks.

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Associate Professor Adrian Cameron (top) and Associate Professor Gary Sacks.

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