Opportunities to optimise food policy research communications

Unhealthy diets and their health consequences such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers are among the biggest challenges facing current and future generations.

Written by Christina Zorbas

Countless articles echo the idea that reversing the pandemic of diet-related chronic disease relies on radical transformation of food systems and the obesogenic environments where unhealthy foods are ubiquitous, cheap and intensively marketed.

The World Health Organization’s Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs [non-communicable diseases] 2013-2020 outlines how policy solutions, government leadership and an intersectoral approach are critical to equitably reduce death and disability. Two evidence-based policy approaches to improve population nutrition include marketing restrictions on unhealthy foods and beverages to children and fiscal measures such as sugar-sweetened beverage taxations. Such policies that change structural elements of food systems are also likely to reach and deliver benefits to all socioeconomic groups.

Australia lags

But these policies are far from the status quo. In particular, Australia lags behind other high-income countries, such as England, with suboptimal progress on national nutrition or obesity-prevention strategies. The recent Lancet Commission noted that insufficient civil mobilisation was also a barrier to progressing food and nutrition policies. The questions that now arise are: can civil society be mobilised to catalyse political action on evidence-backed food policies and how can food policy research communications be optimised?

Engaging civil society with food policies

The WHO Strategic Communications Framework (2017) outlines how health information should be strategically disseminated based on six principles; accessible, actionable, credible, relevant, timely and understandable information.

Outlined below are opportunities where we can begin to change current food policy research communication practices. The ultimate aim is to generate a ground-swell of support for food and nutrition policies by constituents, so that it would be widely unpopular for policymakers not to act.

  1. Develop multidisciplinary communications committees within and across food policy research/advocacy teams to ensure communications are strategic, rather than an afterthought.
  2. Frame diet-related diseases as social injustices, human rights issues and focus on the wellbeing of children through accessible story-telling. This may include novel approaches such as citizen journalism (where citizens, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, lead the story-telling) or public interest journalism (i.e. seeking to expose the truth on matters that affect the public).
  3. Include civil society in food policy research from the beginning to increase credibility and share ownership over food policies (e.g. citizen’s science or crowd-sourcing approaches).
  4. Move beyond traditional academic communication channels and tap into social media used by everyday citizens, especially through videos (e.g. short animations or Facebook livestreams) that are timely, widely accessible and engaging. These techniques should be used to stimulate action as exemplified by recent climate change advocacy efforts led by children.
  5. Use the above processes to mitigate food policy misconceptions and rebuttals. This is essential to ensure that the rationale for policy action is clear.

Unless we stand together to demand political action on diet-related deaths and disability, we may see accelerated declines in life expectancy. Public health nutrition practitioners and researchers need to continue to be at the forefront of this movement, equipped with the most effective and engaging communication strategies.

Christina Zorbas is an accredited practising dietitian and PhD candidate within the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) and Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University. Her PhD focuses on building the evidence-base of food and nutrition policies that can equitably improve population diets across the socioeconomic gradient. Christina recently participated in an internship program at the WHO in Suva, Fiji where she worked to enhance food policy research communications.

This article was originally published on Croakey. This essay is the third published from the National Public Health Student Think Tank competition, ahead of the Public Health Association of Australia’s Australian Public Health Conference 2019 in Adelaide from 17-19 September.