The University of Newcastle, Australia

Technological travails and smaller scales

Mixing digitalism with family food dynamism, Dr Rebecca Wyse's behavioural science research is helping to reverse increasing population rates of childhood obesity.

Dr Rebecca Wyse

Recognising the futility of blaming children and parents for being overweight in a contemporary environment where healthy choices are often hard to make, Dr Rebecca Wyse is seeking to remedy some of these situational inadequacies in her research. Also looking to cross-pollinate ideas and collaborate with those in the emerging technology field, Wyse is a firm believer in the practical promise of digital tools - if not for the immediate challenge presented by childhood obesity and associated chronic disease burdens, then for their not-so-distant future.

'Put simply, healthy decisions should be easy decisions,' she asserts.

'I think we can remove a lot of the hard stuff by increasing our use of technology.'

While championing both healthy eating and regular physical activity in the pursuit of a balanced lifestyle, Wyse's research to date has focused mainly on the former.

'Maybe that's because I love food,' she laughs.

'Everyone obviously needs to eat regardless but not everyone is going to exercise regardless, so we've already got our foot in the door in that respect.'

'People are eating, we just need to make them more nutrition-conscious.'

The behavioural scientist – and self-confessed epicurean – began to satisfy this curiousity about problem dieting behaviours during her PhD candidateship, which saw her modify home food settings in an effort to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. Focusing on the way we eat just as much as what we eat, Wyse also sought to make fresh produce more appealing to young families.

'It's often very difficult to compete with the convenience of pre-packaged snacks,' she concedes.

'But if fruit and vegetables are stored in a form that's washed and chopped, it does make it easier for children to access them.'

'My research was all about raising awareness of these little strategies.'

Wyse used the humble telephone to distribute this content, initially making contact with parents of 3-5 year olds and then monitoring their progression over two years. Families were also educated to modify mealtime routines throughout the study, with eating together and eating at a table both closely linked to increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

'Though not particularly cutting-edge, the telephone allowed us to reach much larger numbers than face-to-face involvement or one-on-one counselling would have,' she says.

'We were able to support over 200 people through the intervention, and much more efficiently than if we'd opted to use those more traditional means.'

With a distinct focus on family food habits, Wyse was successful in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption for up to 12 months in children and up to 18 months in parents.

'Ready to go' in the real world

After presenting thesis findings to the NSW Office of Preventative Health in 2012, these interventions were subsequently incorporated into the Draft Obesity Prevention Strategy. Scalable, fundable, and ultimately able to influence health outcomes at a population level, Wyse's PhD research has also been presented internationally at conferences in Turkey, Hungary and New Zealand.

'I was thrilled that a study I could initiate and be a part of was picked up to inform policy and practice,' she says.

'It was really exciting!'

Wyse continued promoting healthy eating post-PhD, bringing together a variety of agencies, community organisations, and industry specialists to continue the work started as part of the Good for Kids, Good for Life Obesity prevention program. Relaying a number of settings-based intervention strategies to schools and childcare services across the Hunter, New England, and Mid North Coast regions, it was Australia's largest obesity prevention program at the time it received its funding in 2005.

In her role as Evaluation Manager, Wyse was responsible for developing, implementing, and evaluating interventions across 300 schools and 400 childcare centres.

'It was a big undertaking,' she confirms.

'But it was great to see so many different streams of influence come together for a common cause.'

Digital delivery

Wyse's impending research will also have a technological focus. Building on established stoplight colour coding in primary school canteens, it will use online ordering systems to provide automated nutritional feedback to parents as well as emailed report summaries about purchases made over the course of each term. 

'It's a hard job to make behavioural changes in such a large group of people,' she says.

'One way we can sensibly explore this is through technology.'

'It's a smart way to reach the population.'

Beyond a shadow of a diet

Seven years on in the field of population health, Wyse is a published author, conference presenter, multiple award-winner, postgraduate study supervisor, and a member of several national and international health organisations. According to National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines, she is also outperforming the typical successful public health candidate for early career fellowships.

More recently, Wyse was one of five young researchers selected by the Australian Research Council to attend the Science and Technology in Society Young Leaders' Forum 2014 in Japan. Set to explore many of her research interests in epidemiology, nutrition, and public health, the global conference is Wyse's latest – and perhaps most impressive – achievement.