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Q&A with Associate Professor Gary Sacks
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Q&A with Associate Professor Gary Sacks

Policies for creating healthier food environments: increasing evidence and accountability for action

Associate Professor Gary Sacks is a Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University. Associate Professor Sacks research focuses on policies for the prevention of obesity and related diseases. This includes the monitoring and evaluation of policies to improve the health of the food supply in Australia, and to understand the political influence of the food industry.

What are you currently researching?

My research focuses on ways to improve the health of our diet.

Through my research, we have found that the main driver of unhealthy eating patterns is that most of us live in an environment where it is difficult to make healthy food choices. This is because unhealthy foods are readily available, easy to access and heavily marketed to us. This makes it very easy for us to choose unhealthy foods more often, and makes it difficult for us to select healthy options.

If we want to improve people’s diets, we need to make changes across the whole of society. This means changes to government policies such as by introducing taxes on unhealthy foods and better food labelling.  We also want food companies and supermarkets to change how they market their products.

My research has created evidence for which policies are likely to work best, and how much they might cost. For example, I’ve shown that bans on junk food advertising are likely to improve health and save the government money in the long term. We are working with government to try to ensure that this type of evidence is considered as new policies are developed.  

I’ve also rated Australian governments and food companies based on how their policies compare to public health recommendations, I’ve presented the results to government and food company leaders, to advocate for change in Australia and overseas.

What difference will your research make to people’s cardiovascular health in Australia?

Healthy eating can help protect the heart and reduce the risk of a person developing cardiovascular disease.

In order to improve the health of our diets and address obesity, we need to make many changes across society. This includes changing the way foods are marketed to us.

My research aims to provide policy makers and the food industry with evidence for what works best to create healthy food environments. This can support them to put in place effective policies which can help drive major improvements in our health.

What motivated you to do your research?

Unhealthy eating patterns and obesity are leading contributors to poor health in Australia and worldwide. By focusing on creating healthy food environments, we can make a huge difference to the health of Australians. Eating healthy food, and particularly plant-based foods, is usually better for the planet too; adopting healthier diets can help improve environmental sustainability.

There is global consensus on recommended policies and actions to create healthier food environments. But policy implementation has been slow and inadequate globally and in Australia.

Through my research, I hope to improve implementation of effective policies. I also want to highlight the responsibility of governments and the food industry to create healthier food environments.

Are there any recent discoveries from your research you can share with us?

I recently launched a new website that describes the health of food environments in Australia. The website – Australia’s Food Environment Dashboard - brings together the best available data from across Australia. The Dashboard provides a clear picture of the ways our environment can be improved. It provides a summary of key indicators of the health of food environments with a traffic light score for each indicator, so users can easily see where food environments are likely to promote health (‘green’), need further improvement to promote health (‘amber’), and are unhealthy (‘red’). The dashboard focuses the attention of policy makers on the most important areas to improve eating patterns in Australia.

What role has Heart Foundation funding had in your career journey?

My Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowship enables me to carry out my research to improve eating patterns in Australia. Without this funding, I would not be able to generate evidence of what works for addressing obesity. My work advocating for change would not be possible.






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