HealthAgenda

Nutrition

What’s gone wrong with our diet?

Statistics don’t lie. We’re gaining an unhealthy amount of weight – and it’s all down to the average Aussie’s eating habits.

Health Agenda magazine
October 2016

According to a study published in medical journal The Lancet, obesity rates in Australia are rising faster than anywhere else in the world. Almost two in three adults are now overweight and, alarmingly, by 2020 one-third of Australians over 15 are predicted to be obese.

Rob Moodie, Professor of Public Health at the University of Melbourne’s College of Medicine and former chair of the National Preventative Health Taskforce, has described the nation’s battle with obesity as an “Australian cultural issue”.

“It’s a global issue as well, but it’s around the environment in which people live, work, play, eat and exercise,” Professor Moodie says. “Unfortunately our diet has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The composition of what we’re eating has changed, with really high levels of sugar and fat in our food."

The new norm

Not only are we eating the wrong kind of food, we’re eating too much. Research findings from the Cancer Council Victoria and the Heart Foundation published in 2015 showed 80 per cent of people felt overeating was the new norm and that treats had become part of the daily diet for 85 per cent of Australians.

“Half of those surveyed actually believed their diet was healthy, but one in three Victorians is skipping breakfast and one in four is choosing to eat takeaway every second day,” says Cancer Council Victoria Prevention Centre director Craig Sinclair.

“Many are also choosing to snack on biscuits and chocolate regularly. There is clearly a disconnection between what one perceives as a healthy diet and what’s actually happening. What were typically seen as occasional foods – chips and chocolate, snacks and muesli bars – are now becoming very much part of the staple daily diet.”

How are our food dollars spent?

“Around 58 per cent of food dollars are spent on junk foods such as cakes, biscuits, soft drinks and chips, which provide more than 35 per cent of the calorie intake of adults and more than 41 per cent of the energy intake of children.

Healthy foods are being displaced by discretionary or junk foods,” says Amanda Lee, Professor at the School of Public Health and Social Work and School of Exercise and Nutrition Science at Queensland University of Technology. Furthermore, privately commissioned supermarket sales data shows that Australians now spend 10 per cent of their supermarket grocery bills on junk foods.

What’s being done about it?

Professor Lee is also the chair of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Dietary Guidelines Working Committee and chief investigator at the Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, an HCF Research Foundation beneficiary.

The Prevention Partnership Centre’s mission is to find ways of building an effective and efficient system to help prevent lifestyle-related chronic disease. Current projects include examining the different parts of Australia’s food system to identify what is needed to create a healthy and equitable eating system and formulate revised guidelines, using up-to-date knowledge about the impact of nutrition on health issues.

Why we’re eating the wrong things

So why, despite health campaigns and programs urging us to eat well, are we in the middle of an obesity epidemic? “It’s lack of availability and accessibility of healthy food,” says Professor Lee. “It’s also about the promotion of unhealthy foods.

“Advertising of unhealthy foods is rife in Australia. The major concern is around junk food advertising targeting children who are less discriminating than adults and use pester power.

“These challenges are underscored by broader socio-economic and political determinants including employment status, income and housing. Do people have access to appropriate facilities to prepare, store and cook healthy food, for example? Do people know how to cook? Education has an impact too, as it influences our understanding of food and health issues.”

Professor Lee’s Prevention Partnership Centre project has also investigated the perception that eating healthily costs more. “We found healthy diets can be 13 to 15 per cent cheaper than what Australians are actually eating.”

Future health impacts

Our junk food diet is behind a number of significant health problems, from heart disease and cancer to diabetes. According to the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the number of Australians diagnosed with diabetes has trebled in the past 20 years. More than one million Australians have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes – which can be prevented through lifestyle – and there is no sign of the epidemic slowing.

“In the past year another 70,000 Australians were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, but it can be silent so there are people with type 2 diabetes who are walking around undiagnosed,” says Professor Greg Johnson, CEO of Diabetes Australia.

“People underestimate the disease,” he adds. “The end result can be blindness, kidney failure, amputations, heart attack or stroke. For the first time in human history people are dying from over-nutrition rather than under-nutrition.”

The rise in diabetes is, says Professor Johnson, attributable to the modern diet, levels of physical inactivity and weight. But, he says, blaming people for eating unhealthy foods is unfair and unhelpful.

“We live in a globalised world with an incredibly efficient food industry that produces cheap calories. Never before have processed foods with added fat, sugar and salt been so cheap and so well marketed. People are over-consuming because they don’t know what is in the food they’re eating," he explains.

The way forward

With obesity on the rise and sales of junk food increasing, what do experts believe can be done to bring about healthy changes in our diet? Professor Johnson believes tighter controls on identifying unhealthy foods would help. “We need better labelling of foods so people get the information they need to make a healthy choice – so they understand what’s in the food they eat,” he explains.

“There's also a case for looking at initiatives such as the tax on soft drinks that has been introduced in the UK and elsewhere. There's no dietary need for sugary drinks but we're seeing massive consumption of them.”

Professor Lee agrees radical action is necessary to trigger improvements in the average Australian diet. “We need policies that make it easier for people to follow Australian Dietary Guidelines,” he says. “We’ve wrecked our food environment to the point where it’s easy to eat junk all the time.

“We also need to education around scientific literacy because there is a plethora of snake-oil salesman in the nutrition space. People are vulnerable to fad diets and nutrition quackery, such as misleading statements about “fattening" foods such as avocadoes, for example, when avocado is one of the healthiest sources of nutrition, containing 20 vitamins and minerals.”

Professor Lee has also looked at nutrition policies to find out what is and isn’t working. “We found all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries have policies in place in schools to educate children about healthy eating, but only 50 per cent of programs tell kids what the unhealthy foods are.

“Countries that do best with nutrition policy are countries with a strong food culture such as France, Italy and Spain. The situation we’re facing is like the slow frog-boiling. Our diets have got worse and aren't providing our bodies with the foods we need for health – and the effect is going to be catastrophic.”

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