We live in an age where we’ve never had more access to information about our health. We are flooded with advice on how to eat well and exercise right, how to get more rest, be more mindful, consume a little less.
Half the battle of living well is being able to discern genuine health advice from marketing fallacies (oxygenated water, anyone?).
But within Curtin’s School of Public Health, three PhD researchers – Glen Cardwell, Charlene Shoneye and Becky White – are providing accurate, well-researched solutions to some of our most prominent public health issues.
Australians may revel in the country’s sunny weather, but one in four of us have inadequate levels of vitamin D – more so in winter months, the further south we live, the naturally darker our skin and the older we get. Globally, one billion people are deficient in vitamin D, which the body needs to absorb calcium and build strong bones.
Low levels of vitamin D can lead to bone and joint pain, increase the risk of bone fracture and breaks and, in severe cases, result in rickets or osteomalacia in children and adults respectively.
“We may have found a very simple way of increasing the vitamin D content in the diet of 87 per cent of the population who love mushrooms.”
But surprisingly, the answer to our vitamin D deficiency could lie in the humble mushroom, says practicing dietitian Glenn Cardwell, who has worked in clinical and public health nutrition for 37 years.
“Mushrooms are the only non-animal source of vitamin D,” says Cardwell. “A single serve, about three button mushrooms or two oyster mushrooms, can generate a day’s supply of vitamin D.”
Considering mushrooms are the sixth most-grown crop in Australia, with 80 per cent of households regularly purchasing fresh mushrooms, these fascinating fungi could provide a simple solution to a global health issue.
But, there is a catch – mushrooms need to be exposed to ultra-violet (UV) light to generate vitamin D. A one-second pulse of UV light is all they need, but many retail mushrooms are grown in atmospherically controlled rooms; the only light they may be exposed to is fluorescent light, which doesn’t include UV.
Cardwell is examining how vitamin D can be best generated in three of the world’s most commonly-consumed mushrooms in both their fresh and dried forms, and is observing the retention of vitamin D during storage and cooking.
“We may have found a very simple way of increasing the vitamin D content in the diet of 87 per cent of the population who love mushrooms,” says Cardwell. “The future could be that all retail mushrooms around the world are a wonderful source of vitamin D, therefore reducing risk of vitamin D deficiency and enhancing bone health.”
As a general guide, Osteoporosis Australia recommends most people have a vitamin D level of between 50-70 nanomoles per litre. That’s about a daily intake of 5-15 micrograms of vitamin D.
A 100g of store-bought mushrooms are able to produce approximately 10mcg of vitamin D after being placed in sunlight for an hour. Cardwell’s research has found that even after cooking, mushrooms exposed to sufficient UV light retain significant levels of vitamin D.
Through his research, Cardwell is working closely with Australian farmers to promote the nutritional and health benefits of mushrooms.
“Commercially, we could see all fresh and dried mushrooms being sold as a very good source of vitamin D. I can see powdered mushrooms being used as a flavour enhancer and a simple way to add vitamin D to the diets of those vulnerable to deficiency,” says Cardwell.
Poor diet has overtaken smoking as the leading preventable cause of disease in Australia. Junk foods, including drinks, are low in nutrients but high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, and are linked to causing seven different types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Dietitian Charlene Shoneye says food information can be misleading and present a challenge to healthy eating.
“…By taking a photo of their food, participants will improve their diet, but those who also receive tailored feedback from a dietitian could lose five per cent of their body weight…”
“For example, there is a current trend to promote banana breads and fruit muffins as organic, gluten-free or homemade. Names and marketing can convince people they are a healthy choice,” says Shoneye. “The truth is, they are high in fat and sugar, so they count as junk food. Even if they are sweetened with honey, coconut sugar or agave syrup; these are all just types of sugar.
“At the moment, Australians are getting over one third of their energy from junk food, and most people are not eating enough vegetables, fruit and wholegrains.”
To help us make better choices about what we eat, Shoneye is part of a research team testing the effectiveness of a new mobile app where participants take photos of what they eat and drink, and a dietitian provides feedback to help them eat better and lose weight.
Shoneye predicts that simply by taking a photo of their food, participants will improve their diet, but those who also receive tailored feedback from a dietitian could lose five per cent of their body weight by reducing the junk food in their diet.
“Losing five per cent of their body weight is enough to halve an obese person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and can improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels and mobility.”
Shoneye says mobile apps have the potential to work as tools to promote change because they can be an instant and constant source of help.
“Mobile apps offer people instant 24/7 access to information and support. Most Australians own a mobile phone and have it with them all the time, so this app is like having access to a health professional in your pocket,” says Shoneye.
“Consumers need to be careful that the apps and online information they use are from reputable sources, and consult a health professional in person for dietary advice to manage a health condition like diabetes or a food intolerance.”
The research is part of a Live Lighter Today intervention and Shoneye and her team hope the results of the study can be translated into a program for public use.
Milk Man delivers
Becky White is another researcher who is using mobile app technology to improve health outcomes, in this case for newborns and their parents.
While there are many apps available to assist new or expecting mothers, Milk Man is an app that specifically targets fathers to help them learn the importance of breastfeeding, and provides them with information and learning tools to help them better support their partners to breastfeed.
“Mobile technology offers great potential in terms of reach and opportunity to help people achieve better health outcomes.”
The primary role of Milk Man is to extend the length of time a woman breastfeeds her baby. Since Curtin first published an article on the app earlier this year, White says 86 per cent of the intervention group downloaded the app, and early results from six weeks postpartum show that couples who installed the app were receiving benefit from it.
“Mobile technology offers great potential in terms of reach and opportunity to help people achieve better health outcomes,” says White. “This study demonstrates an app for fathers is an acceptable approach and further analysis with breastfeeding outcomes at 26 weeks postpartum will be carried out.”
White says the number one motivator for dads to use the app was receiving push notifications, and the competition element was another good strategy of engagement.
“We also found that dads used the app most while their partners were still pregnant and up to six weeks after the birth of their baby. In fact, the highest usage was the week of their baby’s birth, and this gives us some good indicators about when dads are receptive to information.”
Full results from the study will be available in early 2018, but White and her team are committed to making the app publicly available to soon-to-be parents.
“We have had some great suggestions from participants that we would love to be able to test out in a real-world situation. Our results so far indicate that the Milk Man app is an acceptable approach for mothers and fathers and that parents are seeing benefit from using it. Watch this space!”