As we age, our food and nutrient requirements change. However, according to a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), one thing remains consistent across all ages: the quality of our diet is poor.
The report, Nutrition across the life stages, presents data on Australian diets across the stages of life, mapping whether or not different age groups are meeting Australia’s food and nutrient recommendations.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines encourage people to consume the right types and amounts of food to support their energy and nutrient needs, consisting of a variety of foods from the 5 food groups (vegetables, fruit, grains, lean meat and alternatives, and dairy products and alternatives), while also limiting intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol. They also encourage breastfeeding when possible, and preparing and storing food safely.
The report shows that across all stages of life, Australians generally do not eat enough food from the 5 food groups.
‘For example, very few of us eat enough vegetables. This is at its worst among children aged 2–18, 99% of whom do not eat enough vegetables,’ said AIHW spokesperson Claire Sparke.
Similar results were seen for the other food groups. When looking at the average daily intake of foods for different age groups, only children aged 2–8 meet the fruit recommendations. For grains, only males aged 4–11, females aged 9–11 and females aged 71 and over meet the recommendations. Toddlers aged 2–3 are the only group to meet the dairy recommendations.
‘We are also consuming too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium (salt), which is probably because about one-third of Australians’ energy intake comes from discretionary food. Discretionary foods are foods and drinks that are not necessary to provide the nutrients we need and include items such as cakes, biscuits, confectionary, pastries, potato chips, soft drinks and alcoholic drinks.
‘The level of discretionary foods consumed is even higher for teenagers, making up more than 40% of their daily energy intake,’ Ms Sparke said.
For children, cakes, muffins, sweet biscuits, chips and ice cream are some of the leading contributors to their intake of discretionary food. For adults aged 51–70, alcoholic drinks account for more than one-fifth of discretionary food intake.
‘In the teenage years, when discretionary food intake peaks, it is concerning that the data also shows a decline in physical activity at the same time. Physical activity levels are lower among teenagers—both girls and boys—than any other age group,’ Ms Sparke said.
Despite these concerning findings, the report does have some good news.
‘We’re generally getting enough of the nutrients we need in our diets; however, iron and calcium intakes for girls and women in some age groups do need to improve,’ she said.
‘Since 1995, we’ve also seen a general decrease in the contribution of added sugars and fat to our energy intake, as well as a fall in how much discretionary food we’re eating,’ Ms Sparke said.
In addition to examining nutrition over different stages of life, the report also looks at the diets of different population groups. It shows that there is little difference in the diets of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, but that a person’s socioeconomic status and distance from a major city play an important role.
‘Australians living in major cities have healthier diets and lower levels of physical inactivity and overweight and obesity than those living in more remote areas. The same is true for those in higher socioeconomic areas compared with those in lower socioeconomic areas,’ Ms Sparke said.
Today’s report is a companion to an AIHW report released earlier this year, showing patterns of physical activity across the life stages, which showed that few Australians meet the physical activity guidelines.
For more information on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, visit www.eatforhealth.gov.au