Leading the nutrition revolution

Professor Clare Collins is committed to improving the world's health, one meal choice at a time.  

Armed with practical and accessible tools such as her Healthy Eating Quiz, Professor Collins is empowering a new generation with the skills and knowledge needed to make healthy food choices in a bid to combat the unhealthy eating culture and the chronic health problems it triggers.

As the leader of the largest group of Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) researchers in Australia, and co-director of the University of Newcastle's Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Professor Collins is at the forefront of the fight to improve people's eating habits.

The 2012 Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), an independent assessment of research excellence, awarded the nutrition and dietetics research group at the University of Newcastle a rating of 5 -  'well above world standard' - one of only three Australian universities to receive the top ERA rating.

Part of her world-leading research is based on the knowledge that people crave information and feedback about their own eating habits. With this in mind, Professor Collins developed the Healthy Eating Quiz – a brief web-based set of questions asking participants how often they eat a variety of healthy foods that are aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Australians.

The quiz takes 5 minutes to complete with participants' answers converted into a total score - an indicator of how healthy their usual food habits are. The feedback report also provides information about the eight food group sections that make up the score and offers suggestions on how to improve their eating habits for each of these components.

"A high score means a person has a lower risk of developing a medical condition related to poor eating habits and also that they are more likely to live a longer and healthier life," Professor Collins explained.

"Coming up with a short questionnaire that can provide immediate feedback about your eating habits, well before conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers occur, and giving feedback to Australians on how to eat better to lower their disease risk, has been my goal," Professor Collins said.

"The Healthy Eating Quiz is a tool to assist people in improving their eating behaviours by having a greater variety of healthy foods more often – and I know people like the quiz because more than 36,000 people have completed it online to date."

Awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council Career Development Fellowship Award in 2010, Professor Collins' research focuses on developing, delivering and evaluating nutrition interventions for those currently overweight or at risk of weight-related chronic disease.

Driven by a passion to translate nutrition research into bite-sized pieces of information for the community, Professor Collins says the key to assisting people to improve their eating habits is accessibility of information that is relevant to them.

Professor Collins and her nutrition and dietetics research team is working to address society's unhealthy eating culture and the epidemic of chronic health problems it leads to including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excess weight, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. With more than 7.5 million Australians currently overweight or obese, a situation placing significant pressure on the nation's health system, the need for interventions is paramount.

"I am most passionate about making it easier for people to eat better and coming up with simple ways to do that. You shouldn't need a science or nutrition degree to be able to eat well and lead a healthy lifestyle.

"Part of the solution to improving the community's current poor eating habits lies in bridging the gap between what we already know as researchers and what people choose to eat whether they are in the supermarket, at a cafe, making the evening meal or trying to work out what the healthiest take away option might be. That is the most important contribution my research team and I can make to improving Australia's health and well-being."

An acclaimed nutrition and dietitian researcher, Professor Collins has published more than 140 papers and attracted in excess of 65 research grants worth more than $5 million. She is equally well-known as a national media commentator on nutrition, with her commonsense explanations widely sought by media. It is this appeal that led to her gaining a consultancy role to the popular weight loss television program The Biggest Loser, giving her extended scope to communicate her research and nutrition expertise to a wide audience of Australians over the past eight years. She has also armed thousands of ordinary Australians with information on nutrition and weight loss as the co-author of six popular self-help books.

Professor Clare Collins' research is conducted in collaboration with the Hunter Medical Research Institute's (HMRI) Cardiovascular Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University, the Hunter New England Local Health District and the community.