An ecological nutrition framework for healthy and sustainable food systems

Diet is recognised as a leading contributor to both the disease burden and unsustainable food systems – but there is a lack of agreement on the best use of evidence for effective and safe policies and practices to tackle these problems.

Professor Mark Lawrence is leading an ARC Discovery Project, ‘Reforming evidence synthesis and translation for food and nutrition policy’, which aims to develop and evaluate an ecological nutrition framework to strategically guide evidence synthesis and translation for food and nutrition policies to effectively and safely tackle contemporary nutrition and food security problems.

“There is increasing knowledge that dietary factors are leading contributors to the national and global burden of disease as well as unsustainable food systems, but less knowledge – and competing views – about what to do to tackle these significant problems,” Professor Lawrence said.

Professor Lawrence is using interdisciplinary approaches to integrate nutrition science, health promotion and policy science. The framework will be used to examine how evidence is used in policy-making and practice contexts.

“For example, how is it best to combine evidence derived from nutrient, food and/or dietary pattern studies to inform the development of dietary guidelines?” he said.

“Our team expects that this research will allow us to build the capacity to critically analyse existing policies and guide future food and nutrition policy and practice.

“For example, is it better to base the assessment of a food’s ‘healthiness’ on a handful of certain nutrients it contains (as occurs with the Health Star Rating system), or its degree of processing (identifying whether a food is ultra-processed or not)?

“This will have significant benefits in terms of public health promotion, wellbeing and food system sustainability.”

Professor Lawrence said the project has developed a fit-for-purpose framework to guide nutrition evidence generation, synthesis and translation for nutrition policy-making. The framework is grounded in Ecological Nutrition theory to help understand the associations between nutrition exposures and personal and planetary health outcomes.

“The framework has been built around three nutrition exposures – nutrients, foods and dietary patterns– and their associations with multiple health outcomes, including nutritional adequacy, obesity, non-communicable diseases and food security,” he explained.

Professor Lawrence said he hoped the research would lead to reforms in how nutrition evidence is synthesised and translated in the formulation of nutrition policy reference standards, such as Dietary Guidelines and Nutrient Reference Values, as well as policy actions, such as front-of-pack labelling.

“Through this project, we’re aiming to find ways to formulate effective and safe policies for building healthier, more sustainable food systems,” he said.

“The final stage of the project will extend the framework to guide decision-making for selecting fit-for-purpose interventions to promote healthy and sustainable food systems. For example, with obesity prevention, the framework may help determine when, how and why the most effective and safest intervention is bariatric surgery, dietary behaviour change and/or tackling the socio-ecological determinants of health.”