Sarah Kennedy

  • Sarah KennedySarah Kennedy joined the Department of Sport and Health Sciences as a research student at Oxford Brookes in 2013. Her thesis title is 'The potential of a breakfast based on multiple functional food ingredients to improve blood glucose and insulin response, cognitive performance, mood and satiety, in adolescents'.

    How did you hear about Oxford Brookes University?

    I came to Brookes in 2008 to study for a BSc in Nutrition after hearing about their excellent reputation for nutrition research and have been here ever since.

    What attracted you to Oxford Brookes University to conduct your research?

    Following my BSc I was fortunate enough to work as a research assistant in the Functional Food Centre alongside some well-established academics. During this time I assisted on a number of different projects including; the effects of polyphenol extracts on glycaemic response, a comparison of methods to measure resting metabolic rate, analysis of adolescent food diaries and a systematic review to understand how health professionals identify and measure childhood obesity. 

    This was a great opportunity as I received training in a number of different methods relevant to nutrition research, which helped me to identify the research areas I was really interested in. I had always aspired towards working in a discipline that would have a positive impact on the health and well-being of the local community.

    What were you doing before?

    Prior to joining Oxford Brookes I worked extensively in the travel industry. After leaving school I joined a youth training scheme where I progressed from trainee to assistant manager. From there, I secured a job in the entertainment sector organising travel for bands and musicians, where I worked for many years.

    Whilst working I signed up for a part-time nutrition course and was fascinated by the subject. I continued with further studies which I later realised were accepted by Oxford Brookes as entry onto the BSc in Nutrition. This was the final push I needed and I subsequently left work to study full time.

    How easy did you find it to settle into the research environment?

    I was lucky as I was still working alongside my colleagues, which meant I was able to settle into the nutrition research environment very quickly. There is also a great support network in place for new research students including a number of organised events where you get to know fellow research students from other disciplines.

    Tell us about your research project.

    The focus of my research is to compare the effect of breakfasts varying in nutritional composition on health outcomes. Specifically, I am interested in the short term effects of these breakfasts on blood sugar regulation, memory, mood and satiety in adolescents.  Additionally, using a theory based model I am investigating some of the personal factors underpinning the consumption of breakfast in young people. This model considers the psychological influences (attitudes, perceived behavioural control, subjective norms and intentions) driving breakfast eating behaviours. Identifying these influences will contribute valuable information towards breakfast interventions targeting this age group. 

    Having a poor diet and being physically inactive are among the leading cause of chronic disease worldwide, including cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke), type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of chronic disease even further and currently almost two thirds of UK adults and a third of 10-11 year olds are overweight or obese. 

    Government health campaigns encourage adults and young people to reduce their risk of preventable disease by adopting a healthy lifestyle. These recommendations include advice to regularly eat breakfast (on at least five days of the week) as positive associations have been reported between the regular consumption of breakfast and other healthy behaviours including; improvements in cognitive performance, improvements in the overall nutritional quality of the diet and being more physically active. Associations have also been reported between frequently skipping breakfast and being overweight or obese. Despite these recommendations, as children become adolescents they become more likely to skip breakfast, in particular, those from low socio-economic and ethnic minority backgrounds. This is concerning as adolescents are at an important transitional period from childhood to independence therefore habits developed at this time have the potential to track into adulthood.

    With the increasing range of high-fat, high-sugar breakfast products available to young people, we were interested in investigating the effects of these on glucose and insulin response, memory and subjective feelings of mood and fullness when compared to a breakfast enriched with functional food ingredients. The research in this area is growing, however, it is limited in adolescents and few studies collect information on metabolic markers that may help to identify the mechanisms which might be driving the effect, or non-effect. To date, there are no studies which have investigated the effects of a functional food based breakfast in adolescents.

    Building on previous Functional Food Centre research we developed a breakfast which combined functional food ingredients selected for their health promoting properties, and a control breakfast without the functional food ingredients. A functional food is similar to a conventional food in appearance but is demonstrated to have health benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions, largely due to the antioxidant effects of the bioactive compounds. The term “functional food” originated from Japan in the 1980s when the government promoted their consumption as a way to improve the health of an aging population. Much of the research in this area focuses on individual ingredients, however, this does not take into consideration the synergistic effect of the combining of ingredients, which generally occurs when a meal is consumed.

    The functional food breakfast was developed based on ingredients including; oats (oat β-glucan is associated with lowering the blood glucose and insulin response); blueberries (these are high in antioxidants, specifically polyphenols which are associated with improvements in cognitive performance and delays in cognitive decline) and baobab (an African fruit extract high in fibre and rich in polyphenols).

    Before we compared the breakfasts in young people we made comparisons between adults, where we observed improvements in insulin response after the consumption of the functional food muffin. This was a promising result and we are currently running the study in a school and comparing the effects in a teenage population.

    We hope that by identifying the potential of a breakfast based on functional food ingredients we can contribute to the current breakfast literature and also encourage people, especially young people, to think more about the benefits of breakfasts varying in nutritional composition. This research is funded by the Nigel Groome research studentship.

    What do you enjoy about being a research student?

    For me, the most exciting part of being a research student is being able to devote your entire working day to a subject that you feel so passionately about. I also enjoy the flexibility that comes with studying and use this to try and keep a balance between working and doing other activities.

    There are many challenges to face as a research student. It can be overwhelming at times and you are often pushed outside of your comfort zone, however, it is very satisfying to achieve things that seemed unimaginable at the start.  

    What do you think about the research training offered at Oxford Brookes?

    The doctoral training programme has given me the opportunity to develop skills in a number of areas that will be beneficial to me as I move forward in my research career. I have gained experience by presenting my research to a wide range of audiences including students, conferences and in schools. 

    What are your future plans?

    On completion of my PhD I will be eligible to apply for registered nutritionist status. I would like to continue my research with young people and hope to secure a post-doctoral position which enables me to do that.