Conflicting nutrition advice is leading to confusion about what constitutes a healthy diet, according to Tim Crowe, Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University: The volume of nutrition information we are confronted with each day is overwhelming.
A never-ending stream of fad diets, nutrition gurus of questionable backgrounds spruiking advice that goes against core dietary guidelines, food marketing, and blogs with all manner of opinions presented as fact, all often confuse more than educate.
He was commenting on findings from the 2011–13 Australian Health Survey, the largest and most comprehensive health survey conducted in Australia, which highlighted nutrition deficiencies and poor diet.
Although there was some good nutrition news, there are some worrying findings too.
Key results from the nutrition survey
- Nearly three quarters of females (73%) and half of all males (51%) aged two years and over did not meet their calcium requirements based on their intakes from food.
- Females were much more likely to have inadequate iron intakes from foods than males, with one in four (23%) not meeting their requirements compared with one in thirty males (3%).
- Three in four males (76%) and two in five females (42%) aged two years and over exceeded the Upper Level of Intake for sodium (this does not include sodium added at the table or during cooking).
- Almost all Australians met their nutritional needs for protein, vitamin C, vitamin B12, phosphorus and selenium. For each of these nutrients approximately 95% or more of all males and females had an adequate usual intake. 95% or more of males also met their requirements for folate, iodine and iron.
- Almost all (approximately 95% or more) 2-3 year olds met their requirements for all nutrients except iron.
- Almost all (approximately 95% or more) 4-8 year olds met their requirements for all nutrients except calcium and iron.
However, after reviewing the findings for Medibank, Assoc Professor Crowe wrote: Few Australians follow a dietary pattern that is anywhere near what is considered an optimal dietary pattern for health. We eat far too much junk food, and too few vegetables, fruit and other high fibre foods. While it may not sell books and attract the media’s attention, the power for good health rests within each person by making improved food choices.
Too often a rationale is given for an alternative view on the best diet for health with the premise that we’ve become fatter and sicker as a result of following our current Dietary Guidelines. This latest nutrition survey shows how hollow this claim is.
- Nearly half of average adult male and female energy contribution from carbohydrate to the diet was coming from some form of sugar either naturally present in food or added. Fruit was the most common source of natural sugar, but was closely followed by soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters, then milk, fruit and vegetable juices and drinks.
- Around 92% of adults were not eating enough vegetables.
- Only 49% were eating enough fruit for optimum nutrition.
- Just over a third of our kilojoules each day was coming from foods considered to be of little nutritional value and which tend to be high in saturated fats, sugars, salt and/or alcohol. Cakes, desserts, confectionary, alcoholic beverages, cereal bars, pastries, sweet and savoury biscuits, soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters are all over-represented here.
- An estimated 2.3 million Australians aged 15 years and over (13%) said that they were on a diet to lose weight or for some other health reason. This included 15% of females and 11% of males.
The review, which coincides with World Health Day, was produced by Medibank in association with the Dietitians Association of Australia, Deakin University and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation.
So, what should we eat?
There are no bad foods per se. There are some that lack nutritional integrity but consumed occasionally, in small quantities as a celebratory food or treat, they would have no long-lasting negative effects on our health.
Being able to enjoy the occasional treat without feeling guilty reflects the wisdom of a well-balanced diet, both physiologically and just as importantly, psychologically.
But there are poorly balanced diets. There are diets that have excessively large portions of foods and drinks that contribute too many kilojoules – whether the source is sugar, fat, protein or alcohol.
My sensible nutrition suggestions are:
- Eat foods as close to the natural source as possible with a focus on plant foods like vegetables and try to eat at least five serves of different vegetables every day. One serve is equal to ½ cup lightly cooked vegetables or 1 cup salad
- Eat breakfast to help control appetite during the day.
- Enjoy a range of foods from all the food groups. Aim for 30 different foods every day - the best way to achieve this is include as many different fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices as possible.
Want more information?
- Listen to my podcast with Denis Walter on radio 3AW.
- More on the Australian Health Survey can be found on the ABS website.