Challenge: can you describe the aim of this project in 10 words?
To improve the nutrition knowledge and skills of pregnant women.
What have you discovered so far?
Preliminary results of our study have also shown that pregnant women’s knowledge of what comprises a standard serve size of carbohydrate is poor, as well as their knowledge of carbohydrate foods in general. This is important as carbohydrate-containing foods have a direct impact on blood sugar levels and sustained high blood sugar levels in pregnancy can potentially lead to the development of gestational diabetes.
From my face-to-face sessions with the study participants, I have discovered that pregnant women are desperate for nutrition education yet they are not being provided with adequate support and resources. They have expressed confusion related to not only what, but also how much they should be eating, and feel anxious that they’re not providing their baby with adequate nutrition. Many of the participants have also expressed concern that they might develop gestational diabetes, but many do not know how to prevent the condition or what the condition even is.
Serving size is just one aspect of diet quality. Why is it so important?
There is great emphasis on the types of foods we should be eating, and rightly so, but what we also need to consider is the amount of food that we’re eating. It has become so ingrained in our culture that we need to eat everything on our plate or choose the larger take-away option that we have stopped listening to our own hunger and fullness cues. It’s no coincidence that the rise in obesity prevalence over the last few decades has occurred in parallel to increases in our portion sizes.
Carbohydrate portion sizes are especially important in pregnancy, due to the effect of carbohydrate-containing foods on blood sugar levels. High blood sugar levels in pregnancy, even below those diagnostic of gestational diabetes, can have adverse health consequences for both mother and baby. Knowing about carbohydrate portions and serve sizes therefore plays an important role in optimising health outcomes for mother and baby.
What aspect of this research excites you the most?
The most exciting part of this research is having the opportunity to provide our portion size app to pregnant women and seeing how thrilled they are to finally have answers to their nutrition-related questions. The participants’ excitement when using our app, which involves the use of augmented reality for portion size guidance, is very rewarding. Being able to provide brief nutrition education to these women, answering their questions and helping them to be more confident in their food choices is also very fulfilling. Technology use in healthcare is an exciting emerging area with a lot of room for growth and development. I’m excited to be a part of it.
What’s your Holy Grail – the one thing you’d like to achieve in your research career?
The most important thing to me is making sure that all of the research we carry out is translated into the real world and is put to use. I want my research to make a difference and to positively impact on the lives of others. I aspire to make others aware of the importance of appropriate dietary choices to health, particularly during pregnancy which is a critical life stage for good nutrition. I want to establish collaborations to strengthen this research area and make meaningful and productive contributions, such as further development and testing of portion size guidance tools for pregnant women and the community, to improve their dietary intake and enhance health outcomes.
What is your biggest research hurdle?
I am very lucky to be supervised by a very experienced and supportive group of individuals, including Professor Clare Collins, Dr Megan Rollo and Dr Tamara Bucher, and we have faced and overcome all hurdles together as a team. As with many studies, I have found recruiting our target group a bit of a challenge. I have taken this as an opportunity to gain experience in trying out many different recruitment methods, providing me the opportunity to gain valuable media experience.
How long before your work impacts clinical care?
Data collection for this study will wrap up this year. The data we are gathering will contribute to our understanding of pregnant women’s current dietary intake and carbohydrate portion sizes, as well as their knowledge of what a carbohydrate standard serve looks like and their carbohydrate knowledge in general. Our research will also contribute to our knowledge of the usability and acceptability of smartphone apps in nutrition education, as well as finding out if this technology is effective in improving the carbohydrate portion size knowledge of pregnant women.
Who has inspired you in work or life?
Professor Clare Collins has been my role model since the day I decided I was going to become a dietitian. Professor Collins has not only made an outstanding contribution to the field of nutrition research, but she has also been an inspiring advocate for women in STEM. I’m extremely lucky to have her as my PhD supervisor.
I’m also fortunate to be have been brought up by two of the most inspiring females I know; my mother, Ruth and grandmother, Enid. They are two of the most hard-working people I have ever met; both balanced work with raising and supporting their families. All of these women inspire me on a daily basis.
What other interests help create work-life balance for you?
It can be very easy when you’re doing a PhD to let work take over your whole life; this is why it’s important to be surrounded by people who can pull you up every now and then and remind you that there is a world outside of your office. In my down time I like to explore Newcastle with my partner and friends, including going for beach walks, trying out new cafes and exploring local markets. I also love going back home to visit my family, which usually involves lots of cups of tea and Gilmore Girls episodes with my mum and sister. I’ve even started intentionally leaving my laptop at the office when I do visit my family!
As a dietitian, do you enjoy any foods in the ‘guilty pleasure’ category?
Chocolate is one of my favourite foods! I learned a long time ago that depriving myself of the foods I love has an extremely negative impact on my health- both physically and mentally. I don’t think that guilt should be associated with food. Yes, food provides us with essential nutrients and energy but it should also provide us with pleasure and enjoyment. I eat healthily and exercise often, so I feel there is room for those ‘occasional’ foods every now and then.