£1 million to help shape policies that tackle diet-related non-communicable diseases

The most effective measures to improve people’s diets and help reduce the rates of obesity, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, are to be evaluated in a new research project led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Image: Laura Cornelsen. Credit: Christian Sinibaldi/LSHTM

Dr Laura Cornelsen, who has been awarded a Career Development Fellowship from the Medical Research Council (MRC) worth £1m over five years, will lead the research. The MRC Career Development Awards support researchers looking to establish their own teams for challenging and ambitious research programmes.

The research will consider the impact of measures, which are the cause of much debate in tackling poor diets - changes in food prices or industry-led voluntary changes, such as product reformulation, changing package sizes or removing sweets from till checkouts. This innovative five-year programme will use recent data on household food and beverage expenditures in Britain, spanning over five years to analyse food and drink choices, and purchases for consumption both in and outside the home.

Preventable non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including obesity and type-2 diabetes, affect populations all around the world. According to the World Health Organization, NCDs kill an estimated 40 million people annually, equivalent to 70% of all deaths globally. Obesity, driven by overconsumption of unhealthy food and drinks, along with lower than recommended intake of healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables, are among the key modifiable risk factors to NCDs.

In the UK, obesity rates started to slow in the early 2000’s but are still increasing, with the prevalence expected to grow from 26% in 2015 to 35% in 2030. A 2014 report estimated the UK economic burden from morbidity associated with obesity and related NCDs could be as high as £47bn per year. This includes a direct cost to health services as well taking into the account the impact from lost productivity and premature death.

Food prices, including price promotions, affect demand for food and drink by influencing consumer purchases and their consumption habits. Taxes and subsidies are therefore often seen as potential targets for policymakers to influence healthier diets. However, it is unclear how food industry-led voluntary changes, such as product reformulation, have affected consumer behaviour and therefore diets.

Dr Laura Cornelsen, Assistant Professor in Public Health Economics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “I am delighted and very grateful to have received this fellowship from the Medical Research Council. Obesity and other non-communicable diseases are some of the world’s most significant health issues, and people’s diets have a major role to play in these conditions, which is why more research is needed to understand food and beverage purchase behaviours. Recent studies have mainly focused around the taxing of sugar-sweetened drinks but wider assessments of health-related food policies or voluntary food industry-led changes are scarce.

“There is debate over which strategies are effective in increasing the availability and consumption of healthier products and reducing the consumption of products that are less beneficial to health. Our research will help inform policymakers to adapt effective measures, or even to help avoid policies that may do more harm than good. This will support well-resourced countries such as the UK, as well as developing nations where governments aim to seek out effective, proven solutions to combat the growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases.”