‘A public health crisis’: This is how many Australians eat a healthy diet

Calls for a tax on sugary drinks and warning labels on junk food have increased after a new report showed Australia has made no progress in the fight to tackle obesity.
The report found less than 7 per cent of people in Australia eat a healthy diet based on the , which promote a healthy intake of fruit and vegetables.
That equates to about 1.75 million Australians out of 25.7 million.
Since 2017, the Food Policy Index has been tracking progress on federal and state government policies to reduce obesity rates in Australia.
The found progress has stalled and stagnated.
“Obesity is really a public health crisis in Australia,” said Gary Sacks, an Associate Professor at Victoria’s Deakin University, and a co-author of the latest update on the Food Policy Index.

“We’ve got two thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and a quarter of kids are overweight or obese. And alarmingly, only 7 per cent of Australians eat diets that are in line with the recommendations.”

The number of Australians consuming the recommended 5-6 serves of vegetables is less than 10 per cent. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics via Food Policy Index Australia.

Calls to more strongly counter influence of industry

The index found good progress was made through actions such as the voluntary food labelling system, no GST on fresh fruit and vegetables, and the release of plans such as the 10-year launched in December last year.
But the 84 experts involved in the latest update of the index said stronger government action is needed to counter lobbying from industry.

In particular, they said intervention is needed to limit the marketing of unhealthy food to children and also to prevent the watering down of reforms, such as the healthy star food rating system, which was originally envisioned as a mandatory system but is now voluntary.

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“Over 50 countries in the world now have a tax on sugary drinks; and several countries have warning labels on junk food,” said Associate Professor Sacks.
“And it’s those type of measures that the Australian government needs to put in place to help address this problem.”
Jane Martin, from the Obesity Policy Coalition that had input into the research, said policy ideas have been put forward over many years, but none have been implemented with the public health imperative that is needed to shift the trajectory of obesity rates in Australia.

“We had a strategy in 2009 for Australia to be the healthiest country by 2020. If that had been well implemented, we wouldn’t be in this position. We would probably be leading the world in keeping people healthy ways and supporting them to have healthy diet.”

Adult obesity and overweight statistics

Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, which equates to approximately 12.5 million people. Generally, men had higher rates of prevalence than woman – 75 per cent versus 60 per cent. Credit: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Inequities in socioeconomic status have meant certain populations are even more impacted by the prevalence of obesity. The groups include those at higher risk of chronic disease, such as Indigenous Australians and newly arrived migrants.

“These communities are at extreme risk. In Central Australia, we’ve got 60 per cent of the Aboriginal population living with Type 2 diabetes. Access to care, such as dialysis, is really complicated, you have to come off Country, water is a real issue,” Ms Martin said.
“The supply of fresh food and sometimes flying food in when the wet comes is really, really challenging.”
The prevalence of being overweight or obese is higher in Indigenous Australians compared to the general population. Of First Nations people aged between 2 and 17, the prevalence is 38 per cent versus 24 per cent for non-Indigenous youths, according to the .

International researchers discuss solutions

At the five-day International Congress on Obesity, 1,000 delegates from around the world gathered in Melbourne. It marked the first such large-scale gathering of the event since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Martin said both developing and developed nations alike are grappling with the obesity problem – and it useful to look at countries who are leading the way.

“Countries in Latin America are leading the way. Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador have really looked at what are the key drivers here and what needs to be done by government.

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“So there is a real focus on improving the health of the population, and particularly trying to reduce these really concerning rates of preventable diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers – which are very prevalent as a result of poor diets in the Australian community as well.”
A group of researchers focused on the Asia Pacific and Oceania region also found a lot of commonalities.
“It is sort of fairly universal (talking about strategies to reduce obesity). Countries are at different points of what they call the nutrition transition from eating whole traditional diets to this more Western ultra-processed long shelf life foods.

“For example, in some places like Fiji, there’s imports of very fatty meat that are a real problem because they’re quite cheap, but are very, very high in energy. So each community has their own issues with food supply.”

Associate Professor Sacks said overcoming stigma on obesity and weight requires an understanding of just how large the problem has become.
“I think it’s important that people recognise that with over two-thirds of Australians being overweight or obese – this is not a collective failure of willpower.
“The problem is that we’re living in a world where junk food is pushed at us. And it’s actually really difficult to eat a healthy diet. And so that’s why we’re calling on the government to make changes to regulate marketing and make it easier for people to select healthy options.”
A found obesity and related conditions reduced Australia’s GDP by 3.1 per cent. Per capita per year, Australia loses $A1,788 in labour market outputs due to obesity-related conditions. Public health actions promoting healthier lifestyles were calculated to have a six-fold return on investment, in terms of economic benefits.
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