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Preventing chronic disease through diet and physical activity

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are now the biggest cause of death worldwide. Our team investigated key risk factors for NCDs in lower middle income countries.

Published: 20 October 2022

Preventing chronic disease through diet and physical activity

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and cardio-vascular disease. They are now the biggest cause of death worldwide, and a growing public health threat, especially in low and middle income countries (LMICs).

In 2017, the NIHR Global Diet and Physical Activity Research Group and Network (GDAR Network) received £2.5 million funding. Their aim was to investigate the drivers of poor-quality diets and physical inactivity, which are key risk factors for NCDs.

Over the past 5 years, GDAR teams have been working with partners in Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya and Jamaica. Their research highlights the factors that shape diet and physical activity. These include access to food and good diets as well as gender and socio-economic inequities.

Their most recent paper, published in September 2022, shows the impact of policies to limit sugar intake in South Africa. Policy to support healthy diets and active living in Africa and the Caribbean are being informed by the team's findings. This is providing a useful framework for researchers in other LMICs. The team continues to show the value of engaging with communities and stakeholders. They are developing a holistic approach to addressing the causes of NCDs.  

Engaging teenagers in positive change

Engagement with communities, policy makers and the food industry has led to long-term impacts for the network.

The team engaged teenagers in the research process to talk about physical activity. The teenagers received training and were empowered as “citizen scientists”. They identified the problems of fast food, and lack of options to take part in physical activity in their own neighbourhoods. This led to the launch of an inter-school sports competition in Cape Town, which has grown to include more schools and local authorities.

In South Africa, partners used findings to contribute to a project led by UNICEF to develop food and beverage guidelines in schools. The teams in Jamaica and Kenya also shared their research findings with their Ministries of Education and policy leads. They then recognised the need to focus on NCD prevention among adolescents.  

In the city of Kisumu, Kenya, GDAR engaged community workers on a household survey of the distribution of food outlets. They shared their findings with the County Department of Trade and Planning, which is now mapping and monitoring food outlets.

The broader GDAR Network worked with BBC Storyworks and NCD alliance to produce a video. This became part of a short film series to shine a spotlight on the challenge of NCDs globally.

Developing a new generation of research leaders

The GDAR Network is giving research leaders the knowledge and skills to advance their careers. They are raising the visibility of researchers from LMICs and sparking new collaborations. By involving women at all levels, they seek to inspire women and girls to develop their careers as researchers.

A GDAR postdoctoral researcher from Cape Town has won an US NIH Global Health Equity Scholarship. Another researcher from Cameroon completed her PhD early in the grant period and has obtained an academic position.

This week the Group announced the launch of a new 4-year NIHR Global Health Research Groups award, building on its success. This funding will also support the Network to join forces with researchers from new partnerships in Kenya, Nigeria and Brazil.

“This broad and diverse group of partners across the global South will strengthen our understanding of the risk factors causing NCDs and enable the creation of effective, country-specific policies to resolve them.

“This funding comes at a crucial time. It will significantly aid the Network’s contribution towards combating the impacts of the underlying factors behind NCDs – that have until now acted as insurmountable barriers – as well as paving the way toward achieving global sustainable development goals.”

Prof. Tolu Oni, Director of GDAR

The new NIHR Global Health Research Group on Diet and Activity is one of thirty Groups and ten Units awarded funding this year. Many of these are working on the diagnosis, treatment and management of NCDs and chronic conditions in LMICs. NIHR also works with the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases (GACD), which brings together major international research funding agencies to address the growing burden of NCDs in LMICs.

In October 2022, NIHR announced five new Global Health Research Centres to address the global burden of NCDs . Funded over five years, these consortia will strengthen research capacity in LMICs including the UK and 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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