Prestigious fellowship for research into wholegrains in diet

Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer Dr Lisa Te Morenga has been awarded a prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowship from the Royal Society Te Apārangi to research dietary carbohydrates and interventions to support healthier eating.

Lisa te Monrenga

Dr Te Morenga, from the University’s Faculty of Health, will investigate the role of carbohydrates including sugars and wholegrains in our diet to inform strategies to create healthier food environments. She will also undertake participatory research into interventions that support healthier eating in Māori communities.

Dr Te Morenga says that at a time of widespread public pushback against eating carbohydrates fuelled by advocates of low carbohydrate and paleo diets, she wants to use the fellowship to conduct research that can provide the public, particularly Māori and Pacific people, with reassurance that “we can eat these cheap, staple foods as long as we eat the right type”.

“We’re thrilled that Dr Te Morenga has been awarded this highly prestigious fellowship,” says Professor Antonia Lyons, Head of the School of Health. “It recognises her outstanding research track record in nutrition to date, and will support her to become a future research leader contributing to creating healthier food environments both in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally."

The Royal Society announced 10 Rutherford Discovery Fellowships, each worth $800,000 over five years. They are awarded to New Zealand’s most talented early- to mid-career researchers to support their career development and help them to establish a track record for future research leadership.

Dr Te Morenga says the fellowship will help her fast-track her research goals. “It will give me space to focus and build on my research momentum. I’ll be able to maintain important community research relationships, develop new relationships and consult more widely with Māori communities on collaborative research ideas that address their needs.”

The funding means she will be able to appoint a research assistant to help on her new projects.

Her research will investigate whether all wholegrain foods have the same benefits for health, given many modern wholegrain foods on the supermarket shelves are highly processed. This follows on from her PhD research that looked at prevention of diabetes with high fibre diets.

“By having a better understanding of this, we hope it will help our food producers to manufacture healthier foods in New Zealand and help dietitians to advise patients on the best types of wholegrains to choose.”

Sugar will also continue to be a focus in her Rutherford programme, as she will investigate improved methods for measuring and monitoring population sugar intakes, which is important for evaluating whether sugar reduction strategies and policies are working.

Dr Te Morenga says her biggest research motivation is to achieve Māori health equity. “Māori have a higher prevalence of obesity, heart disease and diabetes than Pākehā New Zealanders. There is a tendency to put the blame for this on poor lifestyle choices but social and economic drivers mean that making healthy choices can be really difficult. To reduce these inequities, we need to look beyond what individuals are doing and look at how we can alter the environments in which people live, work and play to support healthier eating. We need high quality evidence to support good nutrition policy and to encourage food manufacturers to produce healthier foods, and we need to listen to our Māori communities to hear what they think will help,” she says.

“I find great inspiration working with fellow Māori researchers and community organisations where the number one priority is supporting the health and wellbeing of whānau. It’s important to me that my research contributes to this mahi.”