Shocking diet data sparks public health call for urgent government action

15 Dec 2023

Poor diets among children have increased according to the National Health Survey 2021-22 report released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The survey also shows that almost two thirds of adults (65.8%) and more than a quarter of children (27.7%) are overweight or obese.

This concerning data has seen public health advocates issue strong calls for government to take urgent action to support healthy diets and address weight through the implementation of policies and programs outlined in the National Obesity Strategy 2022-2032.

ABS data shows more than 95% of children do not meet recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake. Worrying trends show the proportion of children who do not eat vegetables every day tripling from 1.5% in 2011-12 to 4.5% in 2022, while children who do not eat fruit daily has doubled in the same period (2.8% to 5.8%). Similarly, almost twice the proportion of adults reported that they do not usually eat fruit daily when compared to over a decade ago – up from 6.3 per cent in 2011–12 to 12.0 per cent in 2022.

Over the last decade, the proportion of adults who were overweight or obese has increased from 62.8% in 2011–12 to 65.8% in 2022, driven by an increase in obesity rates from 27.5% to 31.7% over the same period.

Food for Health Alliance Executive Manager, Jane Martin said “We all want to live in communities that support people to be active, healthy and well. But right now, the environment that surrounds us is putting our health at risk.”

“These concerning trends demonstrate the need for action to address the underlying drivers of poor diets and unhealthy weight - the proliferation of ultra-processed foods, which are cheap, readily available, and heavily promoted, particularly to children,” Ms Martin said.

“We have a roadmap for change in the National Obesity Strategy. But until this strategy is prioritised, funded and implemented, we cannot effectively tackle the key drivers contributing to unhealthy diets and weight in Australia.

“We know there is strong opposition by vested interests to stop or delay the adoption of effective strategies, including protecting children from unhealthy food marketing, implementing a health levy on sugary drink manufacturers, and mandating and improving front of pack labelling. However, without government intervention we will not set the right conditions to deliver community-wide improvements in health, including a reduction in diseases related to poor diets and unhealthy weight like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.”

While childhood overweight or obesity appears to have increased, Ms Martin singled out marketing by the processed food industry which preys on children, as a matter of paramount concern, as it strongly influences what kids eat, prefer, and ask for.

“The food industry spends millions of dollars every year bombarding Australian children with unhealthy food marketing as they watch TV, go online and use social media. While this boosts the industry’s bottom line, it puts children’s health at risk and is clearly having a detrimental effect.”

Another successful initiative highlighted by Ms Martin is a health levy on sugary drink manufacturers to provide an incentive to reduce sugar in drinks.

“Sugary drinks are the leading contributor of added sugar in Australians’ diet, especially for teens and young men. These drinks offer no nutritional value while significantly contributing towards poor dental health and unhealthy weight.

“Over 100 countries and jurisdictions have now introduced a health levy. Not only does it encourage manufacturers to reformulate drinks with less sugar, but it also reduces demand for sugar-laden drinks.”

Research shows that a sugary drink levy would provide greater health benefits among low-income households.

Ms Martin concluded: “With this alarming picture of Australia’s health, we have no time to waste. We must fund and implement the National Obesity Strategy and deliver comprehensive policies that create healthier environments for all Australians.

“As a first step, increasing the promotion and access to healthy, nutritious foods and removing the food industry’s unhealthy promotion and pricing strategies of ultra-processed foods is a no-brainer.”