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When leading nutrition guru Cliona Ni Mhurchu changed tack on her career, she was full of hope.
After three years of working one-on-one with people struggling with their diets, she’d come to realize the key to solving the obesity crisis did not lie in education or fat-shaming people.
So she moved into public health, believing the answer was to bring about societal changes.
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Yet after decades of work in the field, feeling that she had the solutions at her fingertips, she admits that she sometimes feels like standing on the rooftop and shouting, particularly at politicians.
“I do,” she tells them True Story podcast. “It’s so hard because I think as individuals, our politicians and our policymakers want to do the right thing.
“They know what the right thing to do is, but they’re somehow trapped into a short electoral cycle and wanting to get re-elected … or this is just too hard, or it’s not enough of a priority.”
Ni Mhurchu, a professor of population nutrition at Auckland University, is one of several experts interviewed for True Story’s latest episode, Sweet As, which investigates sugar and its connection to the obesity epidemic.
“It’s not a crisis of weak willpower – it’s being entirely driven by commercial determinants that are not being addressed adequately by our government.”
After studying nutrition and dietetics at Trinity College, Dublin, she worked as a clinical dietician in the UK.
“I became increasingly disheartened at how hard it was for individuals to make healthier choices,” she says.
“Talking to them, it was so clear that so much of their decision-making was being driven by industry practices like marketing and other environmental factors.”
That realization, she says, drove her to do a PhD in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Southampton. “I then became aware that if we can change our environment, we make it so much easier for individuals to make those healthier choices.”
She moved to New Zealand and over the past 20 years has held roles such as a research fellow at the Heart Foundation, worked on advisory groups for the Ministry of Health, and as a fellow of Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
Her work has helped her understand that changes to food policy, marketing and labeling would make a difference.
“It’s dispiriting to know that there are ways to make it easier for individuals, but to see that knowledge not being applied in practice … because we have governments who don’t want to or are afraid to make brave moves and really regulate industry. It’s despairing to know that there are ways we can support everybody to be healthier and eat more healthy … but that we have governments who are afraid to actually apply that knowledge.”
Some changes are in the wind, although they take time.
After years of consultation, Food Standards Australia New Zealand is developing a proposal to consider amending nutrition information panels on processed foods to include how much added sugar is in a product.
Yet research shows even that will have a limited impact on consumer choices.
Ni Mhurchu was part of a study that asked 2500 parents about added sugars being added to labels. The research found that while there was strong support for better information, there was no significant impact on food choices.
“It’s depressing because they [parents] are a population that we thought would be quite motivated,” she says. “It’s just that knowledge doesn’t necessarily change behavior.
“Education is the default of so many governments – governments like to put it on the individual. And, actually, we know that there is a disconnect between what people know and what they do.
“Consumer education doesn’t work, voluntary industry initiatives don’t work … stigmatizing people doesn’t work – it just creates a deep sense of shame over something that I think we’re all aware of is not just the fault of the individual , it’s driven by much wider things.
“So fat-shaming doesn’t work.”
What does work? Well, on those more informative labels, Ni Mhurchu says they change industry behavior, with companies adjusting their recipes or introducing new products in response.
Health experts say there is a long-term societal cost of allowing unhealthy food and drink marketing to continue.
She also says we should take a leaf out of the public health response to tobacco.
“It’s taken 50 years, but we know what works in terms of changing behavior around consumption. Things like taxes – raising the price has an inhibitory effect on purchasing behavior.”
Advertising and marketing restrictions worked for tobacco too.
“That’s being looked at increasingly around the world, particularly to protect children from being exposed to the advertising of these unhealthy products.”
Bans on unhealthy foods in certain areas should be considered, too, just as it is with smoking.
“Why are we allowing these unhealthy foods in schools? Why are they being sold in our hospitals? Our hospitals are dealing with the consequences of these products and yet if you look at vending machines or what’s available in stores in hospital concourses there are often very unhealthy products.”
True Story is a new current affairs podcast from Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham, the creators of Stuff’s smash-hit podcast, The Commune. Each episode of season one features a different story and will be released weekly for the next six weeks at all podcast platforms.