Q&A with Summer Conference Speaker, Professor Helen Truby

Parkingson building, University of Leeds

Professor Helen Truby, Monash University, Australia, will give the plenary lecture, 'Appetite, Behaviour, Compensation in weight management: what do we know about these letters of the alphabet', on day three of the Summer Conference, Getting energy balance right.  Read our Q&A with Professor Truby to find out more about her research and plenary lecture.

Your career began as a Dietitian, what made you decide to enter academia?
I worked as a clinical dietitian for about 10 years before starting my research journey - I completed my Masters and PhD in Melbourne at the Royal Children's Hospital (part time). After which, I found there was no route for me to continue in research - funding was only for medical doctors. Although I loved my clinical role in the hospital I had the research bug and so I applied for an academic role where I could continue to do research. My research programme now combines the two elements as my health professional experience really underpins a lot of what I do now.  Fortunately times have changed and there are some opportunities for practitioners to continue in research in hospitals - but it is an area that needs more pathways for research trained health professionals so that the 'translation into practice' has real momentum.

With your vast experience as a Dietitian and researcher, what do you think is key to changing child behaviour when it comes to weight management?
In young people, working with the child and their family is critical. The reasons underpinning obesity are complex and multi-factorial and being able to interact with the family in a non-judgemental and supportive way that enables them to make some changes is very important. Building empathy and trust early in that relationship is crucial along with accepting that families are complex and often solutions to social plus practical issues, such as cooking skills, need to be found.  Sometimes I feel more like a social worker than a dietitian! 

Much of your work has focused on working towards successful weight management programmes for all young people that enter one. What is next to help achieve this?
One of the elements that is frustrating is the length of time that programmes are available - managing childhood obesity is not short term and we need much more long term support for families.  In particular more practical solutions around maintenance of lost weight. Families tend to regress without long term follow-up and the funding model at them moment does not support this at all. 

The conference theme is ‘Getting energy balance right’. How do we achieve this, and is the answer the same for children and adults? 
The simple answer is yes - energy balance is not physiologically different in children compared to adults. Of course, there are key periods of growth and development during childhood, but these really impact a modest increase in nutrient needs. The issue is that from an early age, children are enabled to over-ride physiological appetite and satiety signals which de-sensitises them to manage energy intake which aligns to their energy needs. So, we need to take a systems approach to obesity such as changing the social and environment drivers of obesity alongside behaviour change at an individual level and improve diet quality for both adults and children. Easier said than done!

Professor Helen Truby will present on 12 July at the Summer Conference, Getting energy balance right, at the University of Leeds.

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