Researcher Doug Sellman hopes his award-winning research project – helping educate and support people about addictive eating – can be a model for group-based support for developing healthy eating habits.

The University of Otago addiction researcher and colleagues Ria Schroder, Daryle Deering, Jane Elmslie, James Foulds and Chris Frampton recently won the New Zealand Medical Association’s Robinson Award for excellence in medical writing, for their article Psychosocial enhancement of the Green Prescription for obesity recovery: a randomised controlled trial. The original article was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in February last year.

“I’m delighted, and honestly my team and I are overwhelmed to receive this award,” said Professor Sellman. “It recognises that obesity is a fundamental challenge for health care systems today and it is critical that we assist the thousands of people already suffering from obesity and prevention in primary care.”

Obesity is arguably New Zealand’s number one health problem. The team’s award-winning article was about their research project into whether adding Kia Ākina – a low-cost obesity recovery network that provides ongoing addiction-orientated psychosocial support – helped overweight people on a Green Prescription make long-lasting healthy lifestyle changes.

The Green Prescription is a key government health promotion programme, but the stark reality is that obesity is an incredibly difficult issue to make any progress on. Sellman’s study found that found that on average after 12 months on a Green Prescription alone, that the average weight loss of participants was less than 1kg weigh per participant (0.7kg).

Sellman’s research also showed that about half of those who were only offered a Green Prescription programme actually gained weight, compared to a quarter of those who were also offered in addition the Kia Akina programme. The rest either stabilised or lost weight.

“The other thing we found was that there was a significant increase in hopefulness and also people’s sense of their quality of life”, says Sellman of the Kia Akina intervention option.

Doug says also that one of the keys to Kia Akina is a long-term outlook.

“It’s about helping people to get their heads around the fact that they may not immediately achieve an ideal recovery from obesity, but at least every gain is an improvement in the right direction.

“There is good evidence that even people with morbid obesity, if they lose five per cent of the weight and keep it off long term, their health will improve.”

Sellman believes that part of the reason that obesity rates have soared in western countries in recent years is the fact that more and more people use food not as nourishment, but as stimulation – they’re using nutritionally void foods in the same way as others use recreational drugs – and that’s where the addiction approach comes in.

“The purpose of food is to nourish the body. But recreational food is food that has been engineered by the food industry not to be nutritious or nourishing primarily, but to be more-ish.”

Doug and his team call these ‘hedonic’ foods NEEDND foods: Non-Essential, Energy Dense, Nutritionally Deficient foods. Doug and his team work with Kia Akina participants to identify these foods and understand what they are. Doug says that the scale of the problem is bigger than most people realise.

“We’ve done some additional research and shown that about 50 per cent of what is presented to people in supermarkets can be considered recreational foods.”

Doug and his colleagues have recently formed a trust around Kia Akina, and he says that his most immediate hope is that the programme continues in Christchurch as a local group.

“We’ve got about 80 people on our books, and we’ve got a commitment as a little research team to help and encourage those people. I just hope that Kia Akina can stand as an example of how group-based support can work, so that other groups can spring up in other places. They might do it slightly differently to us, but the basic principle of providing an ongoing emphasis on healthy food and developing new habits is always applicable I think.”

The research team’s Kia Akina programme was also inspired by investigations into the way Weight Watchers and Overeater’s Anonymous works. That randomised trial involved three groups who talked with the researchers about their experiences on the programmes. One of the key learnings was that participants had concerns about both: some felt uneasy at the perceived commercial nature of Weight Watchers, whereas others had misgivings about the religious aspects of Overeater’s Anonymous.


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