I had no choice in becoming a scientist. I had a feminist mother who told me, “You WILL be going to university. You can do whatever degree like as long as the word science is in there.”
She was a nurse, initially because it’s a caring profession, but she knew that science was the way of future and that it was going to be incredibly important in the careers of her children. She’d say things like, “The job you’ll have in the future hasn’t been invented yet.” And she really set us up – all three kids – to grasp that idea.
I ended up studying Applied Science to begin with, in Exercise and Sports Science. But that was just the start of what became a whole new world studying how the human body functions – how the human body moves and works on the inside, and therefore how we can support health and wellbeing.
All human beings should be supported by services and systems that help us reach our full potential in life.
You can call me a dietitian now, with a background in nutrition research, but if you look at all the aspects of the work that I do, and the teams that I work with, we have an underpinning vision that all human beings should be supported by services and systems that help us reach our full potential in life. That means accessing health care when we need it, in the way that we want it, across the full continuum of prevention right through to treatment.
A lot of my work has been focused on trying to open doors that have been closed for a long time. Key examples of that would be the work we do talking to doctors about nutrition; understanding the reasons why we make decisions when we’re in the healthcare workforce; even how health professionals themselves can be supported to have healthy lifestyles and therefore stay in the workforce in a happy and healthy manner.
That issue was brought into focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many healthcare professionals burnt out.
So the work I do is broad, but it’s underpinned by the philosophy that we all need to be supported by our national and state-based health systems. And these systems need to be continuously checked and improved as the times change and as our needs change.
I work a lot with GPs. I love the concept of what general practice does for communities. I love this idea that you can have this one-stop shop, regardless of your healthcare needs. And this person, this generalist, can support you in whatever you need.
There’s certainly room for improvement in how GPs are trained in nutrition, but we’ve made leaps and bounds over the past decade or so. Which makes sense if you think about the origins of general practitioners, when they were probably called family doctors.
The work I do is broad, but it’s underpinned by the philosophy that we all need to be supported by our national and state-based health systems.
When the profession first started, a doctor would typically come to your house, be let in by a family member, and see you in bed. Then they’d probably say, “You need rest and a good soup.” Diet was at the forefront of family medicine in the past, but we lost it when we started to totally embrace technological and pharmaceutical advancements. Now, it’s coming back.
Of course, we all know that fresh fruit and vegetables are good for us, and processed foods are generally not. But within the nutrition science world, there’s still many questions to be answered. There are so many schools of thought about the best way to go about healthy eating, whether it’s fasting or veganism or paleo diets. So we scientists agree on some things, but not everything.
The next big question facing us: whose responsibility it is to enable health and wellbeing? We’ve come a long way from thinking that, say, obesity or poor diet were solely an individual’s responsibility. Even the recent Lancet series on the commercial determinants of health recognises that it is essentially big business and capitalism that drives our ever increasing consumption. So if that’s the case, what next? Is it up to those big businesses to adapt and change? The answer is yes, but that will take political will beyond health. And so it’s a big, big challenge.
We’ve come a long way from thinking that, say, obesity or poor diet were solely an individual’s responsibility.
We can only do so much in the healthcare system. All of us probably have a role to play in advocating what a health-enabling society looks and feels like.
That said, I’m really optimistic about the future, because the political landscape has changed markedly in recent years. I was very recently in Parliament House in Canberra for the launch of the Parliamentary Friends of Nutrition, a special interest group of MPs at the federal level across all major parties who want to have this type of dialogue. At the launch, the MPs discussed junk food advertising, the quality of food that aged care residents receive, our food supply, plus many more nuanced topics that really showed a passion and appetite for positive change.
I’m optimistic that we’re going to see some big changes over the next decade.
I’m also very interested in finding out what that healthy community of the future looks like. The answer to that won’t be just having the world’s best health services, not just eating well, not just being physically active – it’s got to have employment industries also focusing on supporting health and wellbeing.
All of us probably have a role to play in advocating what a health-enabling society looks and feels like.
We’re seeing it so much in the mental health space – a greater acknowledgement of the responsibilities of businesses to support the health of their workers. And to take that one step further, to look at the responsibility of big business to care for the health and wellbeing more generally of its workforce.
It should actually be good for businesses. They will have a more resilient workforce, with fewer sick days and higher productivity. The case is there to be made.
It’s a matter now of thinking outside the box and supporting companies in a positive way, to help them really take the lead and make these changes.
It’s going to be a very big thing in the future. I’m very excited about seeing it happen.
As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.