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Funded PhD Opportunity

A psychological approach to dietary health promotion: a needs assessment of preschool children.

Subject: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience


Background literature and outline of the project:

Understanding how to promote dietary health in young children is crucial to long-term health chances. Worldwide, the number of obese children under the age of five, is estimated to be over 41 million (WHO, 2016) (up from 22 million in 2007).  Evidence stipulates that most obesity is established during the preschool years as one in five 4 years olds are obese before they start primary school (NHS, 2015).  As such, it is a major concern given its immediate physical and psychosocial health consequences (e.g. poor psychological and emotional health, mobility difficulties, peer stigmatisation, lower HRQoL) and its persistence into adolescence and later adulthood (i.e. higher risk of morbidity, disability and mortality in adulthood) (Public Health England, 2019).  Early intervention is paramount given that the preschool years are most influential for the onset of obesity than at any other time in childhood (Cunningham et al., 2014).

The main risk factor for childhood obesity is maternal and paternal health, which explains 30-50% of the predisposition towards obesity for children under 4 years of age (Public Health England, 2019).  However, obesity is also largely psychological driven, for example, dietary behaviour (including food choice, food cues, emotional eating, dietary restraint and early life nutrition), sedentary behaviour, mental health and wellbeing, adverse childhood experiences, socioeconomic status, and parental attitudes (The British Psychological Society, 2019).  Behaviours that contribute to obesity are the culmination of a complex interaction between biological, psychological, and social-environmental determinants (Ashmore et al., 2008).

Our proposed approach to understanding obesity is to consider children within the context in which they live, taking into consideration their social influences and networks, cultural and societal norms, as well as their physical environments and psychological factors. The preschool years are pivotal for the establishment of long-term dietary and physical activity habits, both of which have a significant life-long effect on health (Lanigan et al., 2010).  However, there is a dearth of research into food choice and physical activity in this age-group (i.e. 3-4 years).  Of the studies that have been conducted (with children aged 4-6 years), attempts have been to improve diet, increase physical activity and achieve behaviour change, but few have been successful due to lack of engagement (Meadows et al., 2017; Melville et al., 2011).  As such, there is a need for psychological research to identify, understand and prioritise the needs of this at-risk group with a view to designing an effective evidence-based approach to dietary health promotion that is informed by psychological research and theory.

Objectives of the research:

The overriding aim of this research will be to conduct a psychological needs-assessment of preschool children from a nutritional perspective.  Specifically, the objectives of the research are to:

1) explore perspectives on food choice and physical activity  in parents, teachers and health professionals working with preschool children,

2) determine the eating and physical activity habits of preschool children,

3) drawing on the findings from 1 and 2 identify priorities for action and build a theoretical approach to inform the design of a behaviour-change intervention and,

4) conduct a proof of principal study to determine intervention effectiveness.

Methods that will be used:

This study will use a mixed-methods approach:

1. A systematic review (registered with Cochrane) to identify existing evidence: health promotion research, policies and practices in relation to dietary and physical activity behaviour in children.

2. Individual interviews with key informants (teachers) in preschool settings to elicit perspectives on food and physical activity related issues for preschool children.

3. Individual interviews with service providers (dietitians and health visitors) to explore the extent and nature of their work with pre-school children.

4. Individual interviews and/or focus groups with parents of preschool aged children to examine food choice and physical activity issues and practices.

5. A cross-sectional survey of parents of pre-school children to identify dietary and physical activity attitudes and practices.

The findings of the above will be used to:

6. Develop an evidence-based behaviour-change intervention to promote and encourage healthy eating and physical activity engagement during the preschool years.

7. Conduct a proof of principle study to test the feasibility of the intervention to determine its effectiveness with a sub-sample of the target population.

Skills required of the applicant:

First or upper second class degree in psychology which confers the graduate basis for registration with the British Psychological Society – or equivalent.

AccessNI clearance required

Please note, the successful candidate will be required to obtain AccessNI clearance prior to registration due to the nature of the project.

Essential criteria

  • To hold, or expect to achieve by 15 August, an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC) in a related or cognate field.
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement
  • A demonstrable interest in the research area associated with the studentship

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • Hold a Masters degree in Psychology or related area
  • Recognition of the importance of research integrity and Open Science practices


    The University offers the following awards to support PhD study and applications are invited from UK, EU and overseas for the following levels of support:

    Department for the Economy (DFE)

    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 15,009 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fee’s component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided). For Non-EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK. This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Due consideration should be given to financing your studies; for further information on cost of living etc. please refer to:

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Profile picture of Michelle Clements Clements

Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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Key dates

Submission deadline
Friday 7 February 2020

Interview Date
18 + 19 + 20 March 2020


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Coleraine campus

Coleraine campus
The feeling of community at our Coleraine campus makes for a warm and welcoming student experience.

Contact supervisor

Dr Jenny Davison

Other supervisors

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