Episode 34 – Interview with nutrition and mental health researchers Dr Helen Macpherson and Sara Dingle

This week we’re so pleased to have had the opportunity to talk with Deakin University researchers Dr Helen Macpherson and Sara Dingle about a topic we’re fascinated by: the intersection of mental health and nutrition.

Helen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), at Deakin where she co-leads the Exercise and Nutrition for Brain Health group. She has a background in cognitive neuroscience and completed her postdoctoral training at Swinburne University, Australia. Helen is the recipient of a National Health and Medical Research Council and Australian Research Council Dementia Training fellowship. Her work examines the potential for modifiable lifestyle factors to optimise cognition and brain health in older people at risk of dementia. She has extensive experience conducting randomised controlled trials investigating the impact of diet and physical activity on cognition, neuroimaging markers of brain health and dementia risk factors. She has worked with large scale population data sets including the UK biobank to examine nutritional determinants of brain health.

Helen supervises a range of PhD students looking at the links between healthy ageing, lifestyle factors, cognition and mental health. And one of her PhD students is Sara Dingle!

Sara is in the final stages of her candidature exploring the association between lifestyle patterns and brain health in adults. Prior to her PhD she completed a Bachelor of Science (majoring in Physiology) at The University of Melbourne, followed by a Master of Human Nutrition at Deakin. Alongside her PhD research, Sara is also actively engaged in teaching across the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin, and has been involved as a research assistant in large-scale Deakin-based projects (Transform-Us! and Healthy Together Children’s Evaluation Study). Sara endeavours to pursue a career in academia post-PhD, continuing her passion for teaching and research in the space of lifestyle behaviours and important health outcomes such as reducing risk for dementia. Sara is also actively engaged in communicating the findings of her research through conference presentations, short-form presentations such as the three-minute-thesis competition, and any other opportunities that present themselves. Sara’s interest in all things healthy lifestyle also extends beyond her professional life, being heavily involved in surf boat rowing through Surf Life Saving Victoria and having a passion for running; along with sharing her passion for healthy eating and cooking with her husband and 2-year-old (or at least attempting in the case of the toddler!)

You call follow Helen and Sara and find out more about their work here:


Jen (00:00:00)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful cohost is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:50)
Hello and welcome to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm. My name is Jen and as always I’m so delighted to be joined today by my friend and colleague Michael. Hello Michael.

Michael (00:01:20)
Hey Jen, it is a pleasure to be here as always and we have a very special episode planned for today. So special for a couple of reasons. We’re talking today about nutrition and mental health, which I think is something that a lot of our listeners will have experience with. I mean, everyone has experience with this right?

Jen (00:01:39)
Yep, we all eat.

Michael (00:01:41)
We all like cake. Well, that’s just me anyway.

Jen (00:01:44)
No, that’s just us. I like cake just as much as you do. Trust me.

Michael (00:01:50)
But also we’re chatting to two researchers from Deakin University about nutrition and mental health. And this isn’t the first time that we’ve chatted to a researcher from Deakin. Our very first episode with Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Euan Ritchie, which was recorded a year ago and Euan is from Deakin University. So I feel like in the space of a year we’ve come full circle.
And I’ve actually moved to Deakin as well to take up a postdoc position at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition or IPAN for short. And that’s where I’m working when I’m not teaching science communication with you, Jen.

Jen (00:02:30)
Well, I think Deakin is very lucky to have you, Michael.

Michael (00:02:34)
Oh, thank you. And it’s at Deakin where I met one of today’s guests, Dr Helen MacPherson. Welcome Helen. Thanks for joining us.

Helen (00:02:41)
Hi, I’m really excited to be here today and talk about all things food and mood.

Michael (00:02:46)
Yes, I’m looking forward to getting into it. And Helen, you’re a senior research fellow and a cognitive neuroscientist at IPAN with a focus on brain health, including nutrition and how it plays a role in cognitive function. You’ve also been very successful at securing funding for your work. So you’re a previous recipient of a NHMRC and ARC Dementia Training Fellowship. And more recently you’ve received a grant to test an app called BrainTrack that you’ve developed with collaborators, including Dementia Australia. And that is all about self-monitoring of cognition for the early detection of dementia. So really fascinating stuff.
But you’ve also done interesting work communicating your topic to scientific and non-scientific audiences. So I know you’ve set up a website called In Bloom Brain Health and a podcast as well called The Blooming Brain, which I’m a fan of. And that’s all about improving access to evidence-based information and how to look after our brain health. So really looking forward to hearing a little bit more about that as well.
So this episode came about I guess Helen when we were in a meeting and we were brainstorming about different ways that we can I suppose engage a broader audience with some of the great work being done at IPAN. And we landed on this podcast as one way to do that. And Helen, you also suggested inviting along Sara Dingle, who is a PhD candidate currently trying to understand how lifestyle affects our cognitive function. And as well as doing your PhD Sara, you are also involved in teaching into nutrition at Deakin. So Sara, it’s lovely to meet you and thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Sara (00:04:35)
Thanks so much Michael and Jen. And thanks so much for this opportunity Helen as well.

Michael (00:04:39)
It’s a pleasure having you both here. So I’m curious to know that you know, you’re working in a similar area, which is how our lifestyle, including nutrition affects our brain health. I just love to know your motivations for getting into this area of research. And maybe Helen, we can start with yourself.

Helen (00:04:57)
Yeah, absolutely. This probably goes back to when I was in high school. I was really fascinated about the brain. I was, you know, studying psychology and I wanted to be a psychologist. So I was like gonna go to uni and I’m going to be a psychologist. And you know, I got to uni, started psychology. It was a bit boring. But I was doing a double major and the other side, the other side of my major was psychophysiology, which is… it’s not psychoanalysis, which is what everyone thought I was studying. So people would be like “Oh, don’t read my thoughts”. I’d be like “It’s OK, I can’t”.
But it actually was looking at you know, measuring brain function and understanding like the physiological processes that we can look at to understand cognition and emotional processing. And you know, that was really what was fascinating for me was understanding how the brain works. And for my PhD, I really wanted to focus on ageing and I’ve always been interested in dementia and dementia prevention, and that’s really been a key theme of of my research.
And so from there I started to really focus on diet and nutrition for, for brain health and exercise as well. And I just think it’s an area where they’ve got so much still to learn, but there’s also a lot that we can share with people that they can take on board and and look at you know, how they can focus on their own health to improve their cognitive and mental health.

Michael (00:06:23)
Yeah great, yeah. And I mean, you’re absolutely right. It is an area where there is a lot to learn and the insights that we gain there are you know, immediately helpful to friends and family. So that’s, that’s fantastic. And how about yourself Sara? What were your motivations?

Sara (00:06:38)
Yeah, so I guess for me both my parents were athletes growing up. So I always had that physical activity side of things instilled in me, the importance of moving our body. And along with that came you know, the importance of nutrition and fueling our body the right way. As my parents moved away from that athletic side of things, my mom stayed in. She was a personal trainer and taught yoga and was very interested in all things food and nutrition as well.
After I did my science degree at Melbourne Uni, I was really interested in nutrition. So I decided to pursue Masters in Nutrition at Deakin. And then it was kind of later I guess by opportunity that that area of brain health and and mental health came into it. I had the opportunity to pursue a PhD and I think I was really interested in that area just from personal insights.
I was lucky enough to still have great grandparents into my uni life. Yeah, quite a young family. So I was able to see you know, one side of my family was quite affected. I think one of my great grandmas had dementia for quite a few years before she passed away. But on the other side of things, I had a great grandma who lived till she was 101 and it was only at the very end that she kind of started to lose things.
So I could see that discrepancy and that really motivated me as well to kind of… I wanted that end of things. You know, that living to old age and being healthy and being with it. And yeah so, probably from personal insight I gained an interest and also from the opportunity as well. But I always had that interest in maintaining a really healthy and balanced lifestyle.

Jen (00:08:11)
I can just imagine how proud your family must be of you, Sara, to have taken this kind of childhood passion and involvement in in sport and good health and turning it into a career that has the potential you know, and and already is I’m sure, changing people’s lives for the better. I just think that’s amazing. They must be very proud of you.

Sara (00:08:29)
Yeah, I think so. I think they’re very proud. But I think I’m also lucky enough. On one side, both of my grandparents were university educated, which I think is quite unusual. One of my grandparents has a PhD. My dad has a PhD. So it’s a family of high achievers and always wanting to push and push the boundaries. I guess I was inspired by that as well and always had that around me as motivation.

Jen (00:08:52)
Well, it’s clearly a wonderful trait to have in the family. To be pursuing knowledge, I think it’s wonderful.
It makes me think listening to both of you speak. You know, as Michael said in the opening, nutrition and mental health is is something that everybody you know, it’s relevant to everybody. We all eat. We all know that we need to take care of our mental health. And I think everyone’s got an opinion. You know, we read everywhere about you know, here’s this latest super food or here’s this latest habit which is good or bad or otherwise.
And you know, everyone’s really hungry (good pun), hungry for information about What should I be eating? How should I be looking after myself? But I don’t know. There’s a lot of people publishing things online that you sort of think well, where’s your evidence for that? I’m interested to know how you both feel about working in an area that is so popular and where so many people are sharing information that might not actually be based on fact. How do you tackle it and how do you feel when people on the street are asking you questions that maybe the answers aren’t quite as black and white as the person asking might like to think?

Helen (00:09:52)
It’s a good question. One thing I find first of all, the idea of super foods. That’s a very media sort of out there idea that I’m not really on board with because we don’t just eat one food, so that doesn’t make sense. But yeah, last year I was lucky to do some media around a study that we published on the Mediterranean diet and healthy diet and how that was linked to brain health during middle age.
And all the media interviews I did they [were just] pretty much saying “How much junk food can we eat? Can we eat junk food? Is junk food going to shrink our brain?” They just wanted to know what was the threshold of like how much junk food can I eat. And you know, it was interesting to look at it from that perspective because our research is always focused on how healthy can we get the diet whereas the sort of public interest was in how much junk food can I have.
There definitely is a lot of misinformation out there because of I guess the idea of wellness and that diet feeds into wellness. And a lot of people make money out of that industry. So it can be painful at times to see people spruiking different diets and different foods, particularly when they’ve got a sort of financial interest in products or diet plans.
I think for me, because a lot of my research has used randomised control trial designs to look at things like vitamin supplements and and the whole diet as well, I feel very confident that I’m, my research is the sort of gold standard of you know, the knowledge that we, we need to be getting. So I feel like yeah, I often will not talk too far outside of the type of diets or nutrients that I have conducted research on, that or that have read widely. Whereas many other people are just so comfortable being like “Oh, I heard someone on an Instagram feed say something about this and now I’m an expert”.
So I think that the science communication is important for that, that you know. And that was part of the reason why you know, I set up my podcast was to just help to get some information to people directly. ‘Cause it goes through publications and people can’t access publications. So you know, I do think as scientists we have a role to just help maybe get the information out directly to people so that they’re not pulling it from less credible sources.

Michael (00:12:03)
Yeah, you’re absolutely right, it’s about the quality of evidence and kind of the amount of evidence behind certain things. And I think maybe sometimes that’s the missing link.

Jen (00:12:12)
And so, how about you Sara? Do you find that you have friends and family asking you questions or coming to you with things that they’ve read somewhere that you’re thinking Oh, I don’t think I’d really trust that source myself.

Sara (00:12:24)
Yeah, absolutely I do. And I find it’s always like a single food or something and it might be based on a single study. And you kind of rein them in a little bit, whether it’s whatever kale juice, whatever it is. And I think part of my research comes into it’s not just about individual foods or supplements as well. You’ve also got to consider the bigger picture. Those foods make up a small portion of your entire diet. And then there’s all those other lifestyle factors that come into play, your physical activity and sleep and all of those things are interrelated, so it’s a bit of a complicated web. And yeah, I feel like you’ve just got to rein people in sometimes.

Jen (00:12:58)
I guess the quick fix is just so appealing, isn’t it? If someone can’t believe that if I just eat this one thing all of a sudden my whole health future will be changed. You know, you can understand why people not necessarily fall for it, but are attracted to that sort of advice. And and often the advice that comes from the research it’s, it’s not nearly as appealing is it? It’s like well actually, it’s around consistency.

Sara (00:13:18)
Absolutely yeah, it’s definitely appealing I think and that’s why we often get those questions. But yeah, it’s not as appealing to say that it’s all of these complicated things, it’s a big web of your whole lifestyle, and there’s lots of factors involved so…

Helen (00:13:32)
Yeah, and to add to that, I guess we’re yet to find, well in any of my research, I’m yet to find that the easiest fix is the best, so you know.

Jen (00:13:39)
Damn, I thought you were going to tell us, tell us what’s the answer. What do we have to do? I, I want the answers, give me the quick fix. No, I’m teasing, I promise.

Michael (00:13:49)
Yeah I, I just had to scrub that question of how much cake can I eat because that’s what I wanted to ask, only, only joking. But on that theme of providing quality information to people, I really see that Helen as kind of one of the themes of your work, improving equity of access to resources that people can really use to help improve their brain health. And the BrainTrack app seems like a great way of doing that, engaging users who may not have the best access to healthcare? I’m curious to hear a little bit more about that you know, and the, the problem that it addresses.

Helen (00:14:26)
Yeah, so Dementia Australia have just released an app called BrainTrack and it’s available, anyone can download it from the app stores. It’s designed for people who are 50 and above. And basically it’s eight games which test your cognitive function. And you play it once a month. And every month you go in like a different travel location, so they’re really fun games. And it gives you a chance to kind of think about you know, how am I going cognitively, you know? What are my scores like? What are they… What’s happening over time? And it also creates a bit of a bridge. People can go in and speak to their GP if they’re concerned.
So my involvement in this has just been helping to sort of refine the apps and the games before it was released. So it was an initiative started by Dementia Australia and they, they developed all of the, the games themselves.
And the other element of the app is it so does a check in on your, some of your lifestyle so you know how much sleep you’re getting, alcohol, what your diet’s like. So you can kind of get a little snapshot of the things that are important for your like cognitive health and mental health. And you can sort of keep, keep tracking that as well over time.
But I guess the idea behind the app is just to create a starting point for conversations about brain health. And so that means you know, dementia, there is a lot of stigma around dementia. People don’t want to talk about it. People are very worried. But using the app you can sort of track how you’re going yourself and then it’s something yeah, you can take to the GP.
And you don’t have to kind of go in and start from zero. You can say I’ve been doing this app. This is what my scores are showing. Can we have a conversation about how I’m doing or? And it also is helpful for sort of OK, somebody might be fine, totally fine, that cognition’s going great, but what could they be doing to help their brain health?

Jen (00:16:19)
I just think that sounds like such a wonderful resource ’cause as you say people, it’s something that you can feel quite anxious about is the way my brain works, is that normal and would I know if it wasn’t normal and would I notice if things were changing?
I just love the idea of an accessible way of, of getting some information that you can then share in a non-threatening way, whether it be with family members or with your GP. It sounds pretty amazing. And as you said, Michael, the fact that it’s you know, it’s not a stressful way to do it for people who maybe don’t spend a lot of time interacting with health care providers or don’t feel like they’ve had access to a lot of health care information. It sounds pretty cool to me.

Michael (00:16:57)
Yeah, I think a lot of people are into the whole idea of tracking various markers of their health now with the popularity of wearables and things like that.

Jen (00:17:06)
Yeah, I’m off. Sorry guys, I don’t have time to talk anymore, I’m off to play some, play some games.
But Helen, continuing on with that theme of a big driver in your work being making evidence-based information more available and more accessible to people, I’m really keen to hear more about your podcast because Michael and I and I’m sure many listeners know who’ve ever been involved with podcasts… You know, takes time to design and record and edit a podcast, and I can well imagine how busy you are.
So what were your motivations for investing some time in, in a podcast?

Helen (00:17:38)
Well, it was during lockdown, so definitely boredom was part of my motivation. I was actually on maternity leave. I’ve been talking to friends and a lot of people have been saying you know, they had concerns about parent’s cognitive function, things like driving for instance.
And then, I just thought you know, I have access to all these amazing people through the sort of networks that I have in Australia with other researchers. Like, why don’t I sort of take some of these conversations that I’ve had with friends and put them into podcast episodes and just reach out to the relevant sort of experts in the, in the area and just put that information straight out there so that people can, can listen in.

Michael (00:18:21)
Hmm, it’s a great resource Helen. And you know, I love some of the advice that you have on the podcast. And a great time I think to come out with it during lockdown as well you know, where everyone well you know, lots of people suffering from brain fog. And just I think even now still. So I think some of the you know, very timely, and I think some of the advice was uhh, was very good.

Helen (00:18:43)
Thanks, thanks for helping spread the word about it as well.

Michael (00:18:48)
Yeah, yeah. As you say, a lot of people are interested and it’s just about how do you kind of open up access to more high quality information. So I think it’s fantastic.
Just to kind of switch gears a little bit Sara I’m, I’m curious to ask you a little bit more about your PhD as I know it’s a huge undertaking and it can be very transformative and rewarding.
But I’m really curious to hear about your experience learning about your topic, and particularly whether learning about the importance of nutrition for brain health has led you to change anything you eat as part of your diet.

Sara (00:19:22)
Yeah, that’s an interesting one. Yeah, I think I probably have. But again, it’s learning more and more about the field, I feel like I know less and less, which is probably a common trend. But I feel like a lot of my work, I’ve also gone out and spoken to middle aged adults and kind of most people come back to you know, needs to be small achievable steps.
So overhauling a diet is very overwhelming. So I guess I’ve implemented that in mine as well. So often it’ll just be like incorporate a serve of veggies into my breakfast. You know, it’ll be really small changes that I try and focus on, one at a time.

Michael (00:19:58)
Hmm, so broccoli in with the porridge in the morning?

Sara (00:20:01)
Ah, more like spinach in with my egg or…

Michael (00:20:07)
Ah, yeah. Yeah, of course.

Sara (00:20:08)
So some, some greens into my smoothie.

Michael (00:20:09)
Yeah, I think and then that, that whole idea then of kind of small steps leading to kind of bigger changes and if you get the you know, the virtuous circle working in your favour, that’s as opposed to the vicious circle. So I think that’s great advice.
I can’t believe how long we’ve been chatting for. We’ve nearly come to the end of the podcast, and time has really flown by. But before we let you go, we do have a couple of lighthearted questions that we would like to ask you and maybe we’ll get a quick one sentence or so answer from each of you.

Michael (00:20:51)
So first question, I would like to know if you have to pick an alternative career or alternative route of study to what you’re doing now. What would it be?

Helen (00:21:01)
Well, I thought I wanted to be a house flipper, but…

Sara (00:21:10)
Doing some renovations?

Helen (00:21:13)
Actually possibly a nutritionist. Yeah, which is interesting. I could probably go and do that. But you know, that’s probably going a full circle.
But I think yeah, maybe could have skipped all the brain research and go on straight to being a nutritionist and been pretty happy?

Jen (00:21:28)
There you go. Sara, how about you?

Sara (00:21:30)
Yeah, great question. I think the first thing that came to me would probably be some kind of athlete. I think athletes and researchers have a lot in common. I think we’re constantly you know, pushing our… pushing ourselves and pushing our limits so there there’s some parallels, but yeah, probably that.

Jen (00:21:46)
That sounds good.

Michael (00:21:49)

Sara, for the next question, maybe you want to take this one first.
What is your proudest professional moment?

Sara (00:21:55)
Oh, great question. I feel like I’m still in the infancy of my research career. But you know, I’ve competed in the Three Minute Thesis a couple of times now, at Deakin. So both times I did quite well. I think I got runner up and then first place in the, in our school’s competition the second time.

Jen (00:22:14)
Woo hoo. Congratulations.

Michael (00:22:15)
Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Sara (00:22:16)
So I think, I think I was really proud of that. ‘Cause that definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone and you know, helped me to think about my research in that kind of higher level accessible way.
And I think it really helped me as well to engage more with my family and friends about my research as well. I think I’ve been a little bit hesitant. So probably that.

Jen (00:22:36)
Well, you’re in good company ’cause Michael is a former Three Minute Thesis winner so we can just cheer you both on. Helen your, your proudest professional moment Helen.

Helen (00:22:49)
Well, for someone who didn’t have to do a Three Minute Thesis and hates the idea of having done one… Probably for me, last year my research was, I was interviewed for the news and Studio 10 and I think that for me was something I’ve just always wanted to do. I really wanted to get to the point where I was conducting research that was newsworthy and that I could sort of have the opportunity to speak directly to people about the research findings. So I’d say that that was definitely a big highlight for me.

Michael (00:23:17)
Yeah, I would be so nervous going on TV. I much prefer kind of being behind the screen and just my voice being out there, but I think that’s great.
So Helen next question. What is your favourite food/ snack and why?

Helen (00:23:34)
If I’m giving my honest answer it’s potato chips.

Jen (00:23:40)
We only want honesty here.

Helen (00:23:44)
They’re just salty and delicious. And then I do really enjoy snacking on nuts as well, but they don’t give you the same buzz as potato chips.

Michael (00:23:53)
Yeah, good answer.

Jen (00:23:56)

Sara (00:24:57)
Yeah and mine again, probably honest answer would be some kind of chocolate or some kind of delicious sweet bun or something. My family’s half Swedish, so all of the delicious baked goods and things. But yeah, probably shouldn’t say that from a nutrition standpoint, but that’s the honest truth.

Jen (00:24:15)
Oh no, I think you totally should. I mean, it’s everything in moderation, right? Yeah, there’s no point in setting standards that you can’t possibly meet. I think it’s great that you’re both being honest. I love it.

Michael (00:24:25)
Alrighty, final question. And we are a, primarily a science communication podcast and given us some great advice and tips already.
But for the last question I’m curious to ask, what would your top tip be for effective science communication? And Helen, maybe we can start with you.

Helen (00:24:44)
I think it’s finding something that plays to your strengths. And you know, it’s good to try out different science communication avenues. You know, you can try a blog or a podcast, or you know even through Twitter, sending out sort of informative tweets.
So I really think yeah, there’s something for everybody. So if you’re more introverted and you’re not that confident, it might not necessarily be getting up own a stage and talking to a whole lot of people. You might find other avenues. But there’s definitely something for everyone, so it’s good to experiment and just find what you enjoy.

Jen (00:25:18)
Definitely agree with that. Thank you.
Sara, what would your top tip be?

Sara (00:25:23)
I feel like mine is kind of on the other side of things, but we’ll see. I guess from the standpoint of someone really early in their research career, my advice would probably be to just take as many opportunities as you can.
I think as a PhD student in particular, there’s so many different mediums to practise communicating your research, whether it’s like we said, Three Minute Thesis, Visualise Your Thesis, all these internal symposiums, external conferences, teaching and giving back that way.
There’s so many avenues to communicate your research. I’ve found that really leaning into that kind of impostor syndrome and being uncomfortable is really where you see the greatest growth. And yeah, I feel like without that it’s easy to stagnate a little bit.

Michael (00:26:08)
Great advice.

Jen (00:26:09)
So say yes when someone invites you to come on a podcast. That’s your key message there, right?

Sara (00:26:14)

Jen (00:26:15)
Well, we’re delighted that both of you said yes. Thank you so much, Helen and Sara, really interesting. And I think it just pays all of us to remember that in the midst of being super busy with all of the things that we all do in the world of STEM, getting back to some some basics of Am I getting enough sleep? Am I thinking about what I’m eating? And am I moving my body every day in a way that brings me some joy and reward? You know, it’s easy to forgo those basics sometimes, but I think it’s at our own peril that we do.

Michael (00:26:45)
Yeah, absolutely. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you, Helen and Sara. Much appreciated.
Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Sara (00:27:53)
Thank you so much for having us.

Helen (00:27:54)
Thank you so much for having us.

Michael (00:27:18)
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners for your support.
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But that’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your feed next Tuesday. See you then.