Health: Meet Public Health powerhouse, Dr Janas Harrington

“I love what I do… It’s exciting when you have findings that you know can influence policy.”

Photography: Clare Keogh

Meet Dr Janas Harrington, Nutrition Epidemiology Researcher, and Director of the BSc in Public Health Science at UCC’s newly established School of Public Health.

While the term ‘influencer’ may have become diluted in the age of digital, Dr Harrington has established herself as one of Ireland’s most dynamic influencers – in the true sense of the term – in the area of public health research.

A graduate of Nutritional Sciences at UCC, it was Dr Harrington’s interest in health promotion which led her to undertake an MA in the subject, in NUIG. She went on to spend nine years at the university, developing her niche research interest through the SLÁN studies; a series of surveys commissioned by the Department of Health, designed to produce information related to health and lifestyle behaviours in the Irish population.

In 2005, Dr Harrington joined the School of Public Health (then known as the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health), where she undertook her PhD. Since then, she has cemented her position in Ireland as a key figure in the research of diet and its associations with diseases such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.

In light of the recent introduction of the Government’s tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, a discussion of Dr Harrington’s work on the Cork Children’s Lifestyle Study is especially timely. The study, funded by the National Children’s Research Centre in Crumlin, was conducted using data from over 1000 children across Cork City and County.

“We were looking at the prevalence of obesity in the children, but also at the factors related to obesity at the individual and family levels, and the school level,” explains Dr Harrington.

One of the areas that Dr Harrington and her team honed in on, was the impact of sugar-sweetened drinks on weight and health. As you can guess, the study results highlighted a worrying over-consumption among children.

We’re the only research centre in the country that has been written into the obesity policy or Government plan."

“It was conducted in 2012, so it was well before the introduction of the sugar tax. It gave us some really good baseline data from which to evaluate the effect of the sugar tax consumption in the children,” she adds.

Indeed, so compelling were the research findings that Dr Harrington and her team used them as the basis of pre-Budget submissions to the Government. The so-called ‘sugar tax’ would eventually be announced in October 2017.

“We put a submission in on one or two occasions, so we made the key policy makers in Government aware of our findings,” says Dr Harrington.

The sugar tax has been lauded as a positive step forward in the battle to beat childhood obesity, but Dr Harrington believes that it can’t just stop there; that reformulation of food products and their advertisement, and legislation for an overall healthier environment will be essential for turning healthy lifestyle into ‘the norm’.

“Legislating for a change in the environment can help encourage that behaviour change. There’s not going to be one simple solution, one simple target; a multi-pronged strategy with input from a range of disciplines and Government Departments is needed,” explains Dr Harrington.

As a lead researcher in UCC’s School of Public Health, in which the HRB Centre for Health and Diet Research is embedded, Dr Harrington is in a prime position to play a key role in effecting that change.

“It’s about changing the system to make it easier for all of us to make healthier choices.”

“The Centre for Health and Diet Research was written into the Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016 – 2025, to evaluate the implementation of the obesity policies,” explains Dr Harrington.

“We’re the only research centre in the country that has been written into the obesity policy or Government plan, to implement and evaluate.”

This means that Dr Harrington will be working with the Department of Health, and Healthy Ireland, benchmarking and tracking progress of the nation’s obesity policy.

While much of Dr Harrington’s research right now is policy-focused, she relishes the challenge of the research aspect of her work. At the recent European Congress on Obesity, she presented two new pieces of research that aim to explore some of the driving factors of obesity.

“The first piece was on breakfast-skipping in European adolescents, and the association between breakfast-skipping and child weight status,” Dr Harrington explains.

“We could see that skipping breakfast was associated with higher child weight but, also, poorer overall diet quality.”

“Then, we looked at the portion sizes that parents serve children,” she continues. “The difficulty that most of the parents found was not knowing the correct portion size for children.”

“I absolutely love what I do.”

It’s in this example that Dr Harrington’s call and vision for legislative change really bears significance.

“It’s about societal norms, and encouraging, and changing the system to make it easier for all of us to make healthier choices.”

Dr Harrington’s knowledge of, and influence in some of the most critical aspects of public health are vast – which is why the students she teaches in her role as Director of the BSc in Public Health Sciences should count themselves very lucky.

The combination of teaching with research, Dr Harrington admits, is part of what really excites her about her job.

“I absolutely love what I do,” she says.

“It’s about working with students, and seeing them develop and foster an interest in the area of public health.

“And in terms of research, I love the challenge of trying to capture what we, as a population, are eating and how it’s influencing the health of our children.”

For more information on Public Health at UCC, simply follow this link.

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