Dr Rajshri Roy: young people live in an obesity promoting environment

Dr Rajshri Roy, lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics, has audited the food in the University of Auckland and is working to create change.

Dr Rajshri Roy
Dr Rajshri Roy

This Q and A is from the My Story section of UniNews magazine. 

Can you tell us about your personal background?
I am an only child and was born in India. When I was little, my parents and I moved a lot. Dad worked for a national company, so we lived in a lot of different places. I spent my teenage years in Dubai when dad got a job there. It was the first time I stayed in one school for a long time. It was nice not being the new girl all the time and then finally we migrated as a family to Australia.

What led to your interest in nutrition?
I did my dietetics degree at the University of Sydney. I’ve always liked helping mum in the kitchen, and my late great aunt (Dr Pranati Nandy) was a really cool woman who was Professor of Nutrition and Biochemistry in the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health. I was fascinated by what she did. Then at university, I found I was a supertaster. Not many people carry this gene, so I felt like it was my superpower. Then I got a job at the University of Auckland in 2016.

What’s a supertaster?
People who have relatively more taste buds on their tongues are called supertasters. To supertasters, foods have much stronger flavours. Sweet and sour are more intense and mildly bitter flavours, for example, broccoli, cabbage, and coffee, taste very bitter. The zing in soft drinks and beer is at best off-putting and at worst repulsive!

Why did you become an academic?
After graduating, I worked as a dietitian at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in the allergy unit. I was collecting data for a large clinical study and found I enjoyed research. I also had an aptitude for teaching.

You audited this University’s food outlets and surveyed staff and students here on their thoughts about food. What did you find?
We found that across the University, healthy food items were available, visible and promoted less and cost more. About 80 percent of staff and students buy food on campus, and as unhealthy food costs less that’s a significant determinant on choice. People told us they wanted something done to make healthy food more affordable.

A non-diet approach acknowledges the psychological factors around food habits and grows people’s confidence, so they know what is good for them to eat intuitively.

Dr Rajshri Roy, lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

What have you done with the research?
I’ve been working with Commercial Services. At a couple of outlets, we trialled healthy symbols on food because a lot of students weren’t aware of healthy options. The budgie meals are among the top five selling items, so we are investigating how to improve their nutritional quality with a few tweaks. There’s a trial with four Grab Goodness healthy vending machines, and they have led to a three-fold increase in the purchase of healthy food items.

What concerns you about the diet of young adults?
They tend to be the highest consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food and the lowest consumers of fruit and vegetables. The “fresher five” where university students put on an extra 5kg in their first year is well documented. Young adults (18-35) have been exposed to an obesity-promoting environment since birth. We know obesity has long-term personal impacts. Compared to the previous generation, the health costs due to obesity will double by 2025.

You and colleagues Amy Lovell and Rebecca McCarroll are behind the 3Peas Project. What’s that?
We wanted to create a social media presence to cut through the clutter. We try to filter fact from fiction and counter all those influencers and health bloggers. We bust myths about diet fads and encourage ways to look at food in a non-diet way. You’ll find us on Instagram @3peasproject.

What’s a non-diet approach?
It’s about acknowledging the psychological factors around food habits and growing people’s confidence, so they know what is good for them to eat intuitively. It’s about being more mindful and listening to body cues. It’s about encouraging the social and cultural aspects of food, eating with family and friends rather than going on a prescriptive diet.

So what are you having for dinner?
My partner is an excellent cook and we have a new sushi-making kit, so it’s homemade sushi.

That sounds healthy, but what’s your favourite food?
My favourite is French fries. If I could eat those all the time, I would, but I know better. It’s not about what you do occasionally but what you do each day to strike the right balance and develop a healthy relationship with all foods.