Winning the Weight War

With professional credibility, a solid research background and a high public profile, Professor Clare Collins is a convincing advocate for the benefits of a better diet.

Collins is a highly regarded academic who has published more than 70 papers in the past five years and attracted more than 50 research grants, all while juggling teaching and clinical practice.

She is in demand as a conference presenter and has helped steer government policy as an executive member of the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society.

Collins is equally well-known as a national media commentator, whose commonsense explanations are widely sought, and the author of six mainstream books on health and nutrition. She also lent her expertise to the popular television show The Biggest Loser as an off-camera nutritional advisor for every series to date

"It is extremely important to get messages across through the popular media," Collins says of her largely voluntary extra-curricular roles.

"I consider it as complementary to my work as a researcher and I think I would be remiss if I did not try to translate findings into changing the items people put into their shopping trolleys, the food they prepare for dinner and the contents of their kids' lunchboxes.

"The more you can translate those messages for the general public, the less difficult it becomes for them to change their eating habits."

Getting the message across has been a constant theme during Collins' 30-year career.  As a working mother of three children, she decided to go back to university at Newcastle when her youngest was still an infant because she believed applying a research focus onto her clinical work would make her more effective professionally.

"At that stage I had been at the John Hunter Hospital for about five years, working with children who had cystic fibrosis," she says. "I loved my job but I started to wonder if my work was making a long-term difference.

Learning how to research was a path to lift my qualifications and make a far greater contribution."

Collins completed a PhD in optimising nutritional status in cystic fibrosis sufferers and accepted a conjoint lecturing role at the University and then a tenured half time position from 2000.

She converted to a full-time research role in 2010 after being awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council Career Development Award Fellowship. She is also a co-director of the University's new Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition.

Collins describes her research focus as "optimising dietary intake" by helping people to make good food choices.

"A significant number of research studies are targeting specific sectors within the population," she says.

"Accordingly, rather than focusing on homogenous messages to the population as a whole, we are targeting our activities to those most in need and also working with parents who have schoolchildren, with mums who have recently had a baby, or with men in the workplace, and families ."

Collins says supporting and educating parents on how to get the family to eat healthy food is emerging as a key strategy in the weight war.

The success of this approach was demonstrated by the recent Hunter Illawarra Kids Challenge Using Parent Support (HIKCUPS) study, which illustrated the importance of parental influence. Undertaken jointly with the University of Wollongong, the study was published in 2011 in the leading US journal Pediatrics.

The study involved a sample of 165 families who had a child with a weight problem. The families were divided into three groups: group one received a program of healthy lifestyle and dietary advice delivered to only the parents; group two received a physical activity skill development program involving the children only, and the third group received both programs simultaneously to parents and children.

All groups had positive outcomes but, interestingly, the most marked improvement in the children's weight after two years occurred in group one in which the team had worked only with the parents. The results of HIKCUPS have informed two other projects involving our researchers: the father-focused child obesity prevention program Healthy Dads, Healthy Kids and an after-school cooking club called 'Back to Basics' being trialled at a Lake Macquarie primary school.

"People do not realise how hard it is for parents these days," Collins says. "They are bombarded by advertisements for foods that they know deep down are not ideal for their kids, but it is hard when your children come home and say, 'Everyone else is having this.'

"I think it is important to help parents and empower them to realise that they can be the boss and set up the sort of food environment at home they really want their child to live with."

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

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