I’ve noticed that so many people are wanting to send sweet treats and cocktail-making ingredients to their friends and loved ones to celebrate an event like a birthday, anniversary or new baby in the family when they can’t physically get together. And at this time of year we are all more inclined to indulge a little more…

For many of us, enjoying foods we love, including the occasional treat, helps us cope when things get tough. And treats can be included in a healthy diet, rather than denying ourselves then feeling guilty when we succumb and maybe overindulge. Food is meant to be enjoyed!

But the latest National Nutrition and Activity Survey identified that most of us are getting a third of our total kilojoule (energy) intake from discretionary foods – they’re the ones with little or no nutritional value. You may spread such foods and drinks over the day, but it still means most people are effectively eating one full meal a day with little or no nutrition value, leaving their body desperately trying to get enough nutrition from the remaining meals. Or eating too much and gaining weight.

So, given the stress surrounding each day’s ‘numbers’, are you including more discretionary food choices a day to help you cope? Or are you cutting back on them?

We get instant pleasure from treat foods and drinks, but the long-term effects deliver the opposite. When we overindulge, we can feel unwell, fatigued in the short term, but in the longer term eating too many of these foods can compromise our intake of other, healthier options. And adversely affect our health – like gut health, mood, body fatness, metabolic syndrome, and inflammation.

If you’ve been indulging, have you noticed any ill effects or is the pleasure they bring worth it for your sense of mental wellbeing?


  • What is a ‘discretionary’ food or drink?
    They are mostly high in fat, sugar, salt, and low in fibre. Like potato chips, cakes, lollies, biscuits, deep-fried food, pastries, pies, pizzas, icecream, sugar sweetened drinks, alcoholic beverages.
  • How much is a discretionary food serve?
    On average we are eating just over five serves of discretionary foods a day – or 3,000kj in energy. The Australian Nutrition Guidelines says it should be no more than three serves, ideally less.

You probably eat a number of different treat foods in a day, so how do they measure up (remember, you’re aiming for less than three serves):
½ discretionary food serve = 2-3 small lollies (10g); or 2 jelly snakes (20g); or two plain sweet biscuits (23g); or one glass red or white or sparkling wine (150ml); or nip spirits.
1 discretionary food serve = 2 chocolate coated biscuits (26g) or two level scoops ice cream; or a sugar sweetened drink or energy drink can; or 1 cup flavoured water or iced tea; or 1 can full strength beer.
1 ½ discretionary food serves = small pack potato crisps or corn chips (50g); or 4 medium savoury flavoured crackers (36g); or one sweet muffin or cupcake.
2 discretionary food serves = a regular size chocolate bar (50g); or plain croissant.
3 ½ discretionary food serves = one donut; or medium slice cheesecake.

How many can you happily include in your diet?

That depends on your weight, height and level of activity. If you are chained to the desk on back-to-back zoom meetings, with barely time for a bathroom break, let alone a brisk walk for half an hour, the answer is pretty obvious. See the list above as a guide.

But it is OK to eat some foods purely for pleasure.

And in stressful situations they can help you cope. So don’t beat yourself up if you reach for a treat.

No individual food is either ‘good’ or bad’. But high-kilojoule treat foods, sugar sweetened drinks and alcoholic beverages aren’t needed in the diet because they provide so little of the nutrients our body requires to function efficiently. But choosing a diet that includes all the food groups, plenty of fruit and vegetables and wholegrain foods, plus making time for regular exercise, does allow room for treats! And isn’t a glass of red wine part of the healthy Mediterranean diet after all?

Doing two simple things can help too:


1. Don’t bring less-healthy snacks into the home (hiding them in the back of cupboards helps too).

2. Make nutritious snacks the first thing you see on the kitchen benchtop or when you open the fridge or pantry – like fresh fruit and fruit salad, nuts, single serves of vegetable soup that just need heating, yoghurt, wholemeal/wholegrain bread.


1.      It can assist with keeping in shape.

2.      It can boost the nutritional value of your diet.

3.      It can decrease your risk of illness and premature disease.

Why not try out the CSIRO’s junk food analyser. It can help you:

  • Discover how many serves of less-nutritious food you eat each day compared to healthy eating guidelines;
  • See what types of so called ‘junk food’ make up your overall intake;
  • Find out how many kilojoules you could save by reducing your ‘junk food’ intake;
  • Explore science-based strategies for reducing ‘not so healthy food’; and
  • Understand what impact ‘junk food’ has on your weight.

I must admit I’ve never really loved the term ‘junk food’ but according to the Oxford dictionary a junk food is often a preprepared or packaged food that has low nutritional value. In other words, a discretionary food.