The University of Newcastle, Australia

Cut-through health messages for young adults

Dr Lee Ashton's research in the areas of health and nutrition is helping to deliver critical information to a notoriously hard-to-reach group: young Australian adults.

Dr Lee Ashton smiling in front of a beach, wearing a University of Newcastle shirt, arms crossed

Dr Lee Ashton and his research team are developing targeted digital tools, including the No Money, No Time website, to help debunk damaging diet myths and get research-informed health and nutrition messages into the hands of young Australians—especially young men.

Lee shares that this age range, between 18 and 25 years, is often when positive diet and health habits give way under key transitions, busy schedules and responsibilities, leading to poor health behaviours that can hang around for a lifetime.

“We know from research that positive (and negative) health behaviours established during this transition to adulthood persist through to later life, so it’s absolutely imperative to make those positive changes while people are still young”.

Lee explains that by delivering timely nutrition information to young people, the team’s innovative digital tools have the potential to enhance this group’s long-term health, which in turn, could dramatically reduce healthcare costs, premature mortality and the prevalence of chronic diseases.

“There is a lot of dietary misinformation out there and it’s difficult to provide evidence-based health and nutrition information that appeals to this age group. By providing credible advice, we hope to help Australians make long-term positive changes to their health and diet.”

No money, no time

Lee’s ultimate goal is to help connect more young people with the information they need to stay fit and healthy, and they do this in a variety of ways. Over the past couple of years, his team has run a massive online open course (MOOC) called the Science of Weight Loss: Dispelling Diet Myths, which has seen incredibly positive engagement from a national and global audience.

“The course has attracted more than 57,000 students from over 180 countries.”

More recently, Lee and his team developed a novel healthy eating website called No Money, No Time, which received support from partners nib foundation. The website has involved experts from a range of disciplines such as specialists in User-Experience (UX), digital health, marketing and science communication. The cross-disciplinary team worked together to turn complex research data into easily digestible diet information for busy young people who are often managing competing family and career responsibilities, turning healthy eating habits into an afterthought.

“Diet has a direct impact on most of the leading causes of death worldwide. Yet, 98 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds in Australia fail to meet their daily fruit and vegetable requirements, and over a third of their diet comes from discretionary ‘junk’ foods.

“As a result, young adults have the highest rate of weight gain compared with any other adult age group, with an average of one kilogram gained per year from early adulthood to middle-age.”

No Money, No Time directly acknowledges the dual challenges of limited time and money—the hallmarks of this life stage—to deliver more relevant and practical information for young Australians. The website includes meal hacks and quick, cheap and healthy meal ideas, which can be easily filtered by available kitchen equipment. It also tailors content based on relevant motivators, such as sports performance targets or maintaining a healthy weight. The audience’s most common questions are addressed by experts, and users have their own personal dashboard on the website to suit their diet goals.

An embedded dietary assessment tool on the site, The Healthy Eating Quiz, rates how healthy an individual’s eating habits are in comparison to dietary guidelines and provides a personalised feedback report to help identify areas in their diet for improvement.

An ear to the ground

No Money, No Time is informed by young people themselves—their preferences, challenges and motivators—to help overcome stubborn obstacles that prevent behavioural change. The website has the software ‘Hotjar’ installed on the site so users can provide feedback, allowing the website to be continually improve and tailored, and to inform future projects.

The No Money, No Time website also draws learning from Lee’s PhD work, The HEYMAN program, which developed a pilot healthy lifestyle program for young men in the Hunter and showed strong improvements across their diets, activity levels, cholesterol levels and mental health over a three-month period.

“I am always excited to see a program I have developed or been involved with make a difference to the health behaviours of people using it.”

Already, the No Money, No Time website has garnered more than 25,000 user engagements and over 12,000 account sign-ups. On this platform and elsewhere, Lee is steadily increasing his reach and paving the way for better health among young adults across Australia.

“Knowing that the work we are doing is helping people to make long-term positive changes to their health and helping to reduce the risk of preventable chronic diseases later in life—that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”