The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) has released a report examining the cost of poor nutrition to Australians’ health, calling on the government to update its National Nutrition Policy.

The report, titled Nourish Not Neglect: Putting health on our nation’s table, highlighted that less than one per cent of the population eat according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and 67 per cent of adults are overweight or obese, a rise of more than 10 per cent in two decades.

The DAA warns we need to act fast to fix a big problem.
The DAA warns we need to act fast to fix a big problem.

“Even more alarmingly, this figure is expected to increase,” the report stated. Projections suggest that by 2025, 83 per cent of men and 75 per cent of women aged 20 years or older, will be overweight or obese.

This is significant given 10 per cent of the total burden of disease is attributed to poor diet, with an additional 8.5 per cent attributed to obesity, costing the country billions of dollars each year.

The National Nutrition Policy was last revised in 1992.

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“A new National Nutrition Policy would address the rising prevalence and healthcare costs of diet-related chronic disease, and help improve food and nutrition security, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, the nutritional needs of vulnerable Australians, sustainability, social equity and productivity,” the report continued.

Specifically, a new policy needs to address issues like poor nutrition in aged care facilities, where one in two residents are malnourished and just $6 a day is spent on food, said DAA CEO Robert Hunt.

It also needs to address menus in school canteens and the junk food intake of Australians, which currently accounts for more than a third of our daily energy intake and 58 per cent of our daily food budget.

Hunt said, although there are positive initiatives like food labelling and healthier school canteens in some states, they are happening “in isolation”.

“Good things are happening in a piecemeal way but there needs to be a coordinated approach,” he said. “We’ve lost our way and if we don’t fix it there won’t be a population to worry about.”

This graph from the DAA report shows the cost of poor nutrition.
This graph from the DAA report shows the cost of poor nutrition.

A “coordinated approach” would include a public education campaign about the health impact of poor diet as well promotion of the dietary guidelines, greater access to nutrition advice, restricting or removing junk food advertising, as well as ensuring “limited exposure to temptations” in public places.

“Where’s the public education campaign that was there for AIDS and for tobacco?” he asked“Diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and cancer are four of the largest chronic disease killers in this country. Some of it can be changed by a change in diet.”

According to the report: “If Australians had eating patterns that aligned with [the dietary guidelines], the total burden of disease would reduce dramatically, with heart disease reducing by 52 per cent, type 2 diabetes by 34 per cent and diet-related cancers by up to 37 per cent.”

While Hunt agreed Australians should be able to choose what they consume, he said, “It is the government’s role to make sure the choice is coming from an informed point of view.”

Terry Slevin, the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia said he “welcomes this strong comment from the DAA”.

“Dietitians are at the clinical coalface of the health problems we are facing as a result of poor nutrition and obesity,” Slevin said, adding that “the basics” of the 1992 policy are still the same but the environment and the science have “changed substantially”.

“It needs to be reframed to address the updated science and the specific problems facing us today – obesity but also the growth in chronic disease associated with diet,” Slevin said “We need to establish one consistent voice and put policy in place that the industry doesn’t like, we need to commit to and invest in preventative efforts. The industry has had too strong a say in policy setting and that has to be challenged.”

AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, said improving dietary habits of Australians must be a national priority if we are to see a decrease in rates of overweight and obesity.

“Education alone will not be enough. We must recognise the food environment and the role of industry. The promotion of cheap unhealthy food and beverages can undermine efforts to improve dietary habits.

“We need a strategic population level approach that includes things like a tax on sugar sweetened beverages and restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children, as well as easy to understand and adopt information about how to consume a healthier diet. “

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the government recognised “the importance of a healthy diet” for healthy body weight and prevention of non-communicable diseases.

“Encouraging healthy eating and prevention of obesity requires a multi-faceted, community wide approach,” the spokesperson said.

They listed the department’s efforts to implement “effective preventive health policies and programs”. These included the Australian Dietary Guidelines, The Health Star Rating (HSR) system, The Healthy Food Partnership, The Healthy Weight Guide website, the National Strategic Framework for Chronic Conditions and the development of a National Obesity Strategy, for which a summit is being held this week.

“The purpose of the Obesity Summit will be to identify and prioritise actions to reduce the impact obesity has on the Australian community and health system, including efforts in primary and secondary care prevention reflecting that prevention occurs in health and other settings,” the spokesperson said. “Nutrition policies and programs will be a key focus of the summit.”

The spokesperson did not address questions about an updated National Nutrition Policy.

Hunt said he fears not enough is being done. The Australian Dietary Guidelines are due for review but he said it is “almost useless” unless you get the message out to the public.

“They don’t know they exist: we’re pushing the proverbial up a hill to get [the message] to 26 million people,” Hunt said.

“Our message is if we don’t get a policy in place we won’t exist in 50 years time. Already 67 per cent of people are overweight or obese and they are key indicators of the top four chronic diseases – you do your own math.”

BREAKOUT BOX

The 1992 policy recommended a review be undertaken after three years.

The Policy’s aims were:

  • to improve the knowledge and skills necessary for Australians to choose a healthy diet
  • to incorporate food and nutrition objectives into a broad range of policy areas and sectors
  • to support community based initiatives towards improving the diet of people with special needs
  • to regularly monitor the food and nutrition system.

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