‘Good for industry, good for policy’: Large scale study to assess benefits of ‘NZ diet’ on key health outcomes

By Si Ying Thian

- Last updated on GMT

He Rourou Whai Painga project found health benefits linked to 'NZ diet'  © Getty Images
He Rourou Whai Painga project found health benefits linked to 'NZ diet' © Getty Images

Related tags Nutrition Obesity Cardiovascular disease Exports

New Zealand researchers are hoping that results from a new, large-scale dietary intervention study will underpin domestic nutrition policies and boost export opportunities.

He Rourou Whai Painga is a two-year study that aims to develop a ‘New Zealand diet,' comprising of predominantly locally produced food and beverages, to improve the metabolic and cardiovascular health for at-risk individuals.

The two-year study - set to complete in June 2024 - involves 200 participants and families from Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, and Kokiri Marae in Lower Hutt.

Participants will undergo a dietary intervention centred on plant-based foods for 12 weeks, followed by 12 months of monitoring and nutrition support to maintain the diet.

Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia​, the research lead Prof. Jeremy Krebs from University of Otago, Wellington, reflected the health benefits of NZ locally sourced food:

“We have a clean environment generally, and our horticultural and farming practices are environmentally mindful. There’s lots of reasons why our fruits, plants and animals have a very good micronutrient composition to them, and this aligns with the healthy dietary pattern we want to promote and help people adopt. One of the messages is translating the environment into food that produces healthier outcomes.”

Industry-academia collaboration

He added this was ‘first-of-its-kind’ collaboration between industry and academia.

Historically, in much of the work I’ve been involved in these areas, I’ve often felt that we as academics are battling against the food industry, perhaps fast-food chains promoting food we regard as unhealthy. This project is flipping that around with an opportunity to work together with the industry, than against it to promote the healthier dietary aspects. It helped us to reframe and rethink some of the work we do.

Hopefully, not only providing the food and beverage companies with opportunities, but learning from them and them learning from us. It’s an interesting change in the partnership model between academic and food industry – a healthy positive direction rather than a battle.”

Understandably, companies are eager to boost exports for NZ food and beverages, so capacity building emerged as the secondary objective of the research – particularly in promoting the products of indigenous Maori producers in international markets.

Interventions should focus on the family

Prof. Krebs also underlined why the study took on a family-centred approach to dietary intervention.

He said that dietary interventions are unlikely to sustain if they tackle the individual in isolation because people tend to eat in groups like families. Secondly, genetics play a significant role in cardiometabolic diseases.

In the study, participants are randomly assigned into two groups. The control group will continue their usual dietary pattern, while the treatment group will receive the food prescribed by the researchers.

At week 12, the researchers will take measurements related to their metabolic syndrome – a collection of risk factors to determine if one is at greater risk of cardiometabolic diseases. After the assessment, the control group will be given the dietary intervention for 12 weeks.

Trying to get people to change their diet is very difficult. Particularly if you want them to eat some foods people are not familiar with, they are less inclined to do that unless you help them. What we decided to do for the study was to provide the participants with 75% of their weekly food requirements for the first 12 weeks, and the idea behind that is to give them the opportunity to try different recipes and foods that they wouldn't necessarily otherwise do.”

This is a longitudinal study spanning 12 months of monitoring. After the 12 weeks of dietary intervention, participants will be provided with nutrition support for six months, such as recipe ideas, social media groups connecting other study participants, and guidance to prepare foods, to help that to sustain the diet.

By early 2024, Prof. Krebs said that the researchers would have obtained results pertaining to their health outcomes and whether the dietary intervention can be sustained in the longer term.

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