Current approaches to curbing the global rise of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are failing, according to University of Southampton researchers.
Writing in Nature, the group, led by the late Professor David Barker, say more needs to be done to support young girls and women to feel more in control of their lives and so better able to prioritise healthy eating.
They believe this will have significant benefits in improving the health of future generations and reducing mortality rates.
More than 30 years of epidemiological studies at the University of Southampton and around the world have shown that the chances of a person having a chronic disease in later life can be determined when they are in the womb.
The biology underlying the developmental origins of health and disease has begun to be better understood and evidence suggests that women need to start eating healthily well before they become pregnant. Women who are obese, and those whose stores of nutrients mean the supply to their growing fetus is less than optimal, risk having babies with a greater likelihood of suffering diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease or cancer in later life.
Focus group research has identified that women do know they should be eating healthily – it is not knowledge that they lack. It is more often that they feel out of control of the food choices they make for themselves and their families. The Southampton researchers warn: "The public health approach currently used across industrialized nations (like the UK) of providing women with information about healthy eating seems unlikely to be effective."
They call instead for initiatives to enhance women's sense of empowerment in relation to their food choices by supporting them to identify the barriers they face and to generate their own solutions. These personal empowerment activities need to be accompanied by environmental changes which make it easier for women to make better choices, the Southampton researchers believe. Similar approaches have been used in small communities in Canada, Australia and America where work to increase people's confidence in choosing and cooking healthy foods has been accompanied by improvements in access to fruits and vegetables and local media campaigns to promote the benefit of eating well.
They say: "So far, public health advocates have called for regulation and legislation as a means to improve diets — an increased tax on fatty and sugary foods, for instance. Yet this is unlikely to happen because raising the tax on soft drinks, say, is not in the interests of industry, or of politicians, who are sensitive to industry pressures and to a public who want cheap soft drinks.
"Instead of wagging fingers, we need to generate consensus. Empowering consumers to call for better access to better food will put pressure on both politicians to respond to voters, and on the food industry to please their customers."
Dr Mary Barker, Senior Lecturer in Psychology in the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton and one of the authors of the comment piece in Nature, says: "Young women need to be supported to make healthier food choices, but we also need to work with government and industry to make healthy food choices easier. The challenge for public health is to stop telling everyone what they should and shouldn't do and instead empower women, policy makers and food companies to generate consensus about what needs to be done."
Professor Cyrus Cooper, Director of the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, adds: "Thirty years of scientific discovery at the University of Southampton and around the world have established the importance of early life in determining life-long disease risk. The University is now at the forefront of work to build on this knowledge and develop interventions to address the public health implications."
Notes to editors
1. A copy of the comment piece is available from Media Relations upon request. The paper will be freely accessible after the embargo ends at http://www.nature.com/news/1.14320
2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.
With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.
The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus. http://www.southampton.ac.uk
3. Over the past century, the Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. http://www.mrc.ac.uk
The MRC Centenary Timeline chronicles 100 years of life-changing discoveries and shows how our research has had a lasting influence on healthcare and wellbeing in the UK and globally, right up to the present day. http://www.centenary.mrc.ac.uk
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