Dr Christina Zorbas’s contributions to public health research have been recognised by the Victorian Government who on Monday awarded her the Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research in Public Health.

The Premier’s Awards for Health and Medical Research, established in 1995 by the Victorian Government in partnership with the Australian Society for Medical Research, recognise the exceptional contributions and capabilities of Victoria’s early-career health and medical researchers.

A member of the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) at the Institute for Health Transformation (IHT), Dr Zorbas’ work seeks to address the affordability of healthy diets for people on low incomes.

“In Australia, diet-related health inequities are widening and unless food policy actions consider the voices, values, and first-hand experiences of people who are struggling the most, these inequities are likely to keep widening,” Dr Zorbas says.

“For decades, society has blamed and stigmatised people for having unhealthy diets and for living in poverty, with little effort made to listen to their stories. When you do make the effort, you see how difficult it is to eat healthily on a low-income. There are real structural barriers that most people don’t have the power to change. For example, you can’t increase your income if have a chronic illness and you need government support to get by.

“It’s all very well to say people choose to eat healthily or not, but in reality, many people don’t have much flexibility to choose. They are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Equitably improving access to healthy diets in Victoria relies on addressing the conditions in which people are born, work, live and age – the social determinants of dietary inequities.”

L-R: Professor Anna Peeters, Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer, Dr Christina Zorbas, Professor Rachel Huxley

Director of the Institute for Health Transformation, Professor Anna Peeters says the award was fitting recognition of Dr Zorbas’s important work.

“A key role of the Institute for Health Transformation is to build the capacity of emerging research leaders,” she says. “It is a pleasure to see this reflected in Christina’s work and recognition as an outstanding researcher and an emerging leader in her field.”

Dr Zorbas’s work has pioneered new methods of assessing the cost of healthy diets. Part of the issue, she says, stems from the methodology.

“Traditionally, researchers would go into supermarkets or stores and collect the prices of say, 60 items and then you go back and calculate your costs manually,” she says.

“What we realised at the time I was doing my PhD is that so much data is now available with online shopping taking over and really booming through the pandemic.

“Now there are apps that even tell you when something’s on special. This allows us to monitor supermarket prices so closely that we decided to create bigger databases by using what’s already available online.

“By having these bigger databases, we’ve been able to start addressing other questions too, such as to what extent are junk foods put on special compared to healthy foods?”

When speaking of her recognition in the Premier’s Awards, Dr Zorbas says she couldn’t have achieved recognition without the support of her family and her PhD supervisors, Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer and Professor Anna Peeters.

“One of the luckiest things that has ever happened to me was meeting Kathryn and Anna, and then somehow ending up in their research team for 5 years,” she says. “They’ve just been so supportive right from the beginning. I couldn’t have had these opportunities without them lifting me up and giving me a helping hand.”

As for what comes next for Dr Zorbas, she says she’s taking things one step at a time as she undertakes a VicHealth fellowship to advance equity and community voices in food policy making.

“For me, the vision’s always been pretty clear; we need to be doing a lot more to reduce inequalities in population health, and I’d like to spend as long as I can making contributions to that space,” she says.

“I started doing research because I thought it was fun learning about a topic that I really loved.

“Now, the more I look into it, the more I think we could be doing to make public health and equity national priorities – starting by making sure that people aren’t living below the poverty line in such a wealthy country.”