Barely a pass: CSIRO marks down our national eating habits

Party time? No, this is how Australians eat too much of he time according to the CSIRO.

Party time? No, this is how Australians eat too much of he time according to the CSIRO. Photo supplied

Between 2015 and 2023, thousands of Australians have been filling out a questionnaire online, sharing their eating habits.

The 235,268 adult participants seem to have damned themselves with their honesty.

This was the ‘CSIRO Healthy Diet Score’, a project designed to gain a snapshot of who is eating healthily, who is not – and what foods are causing us trouble.

The final report, released this week, suggests that many of the participants, in between typing their answers, were snacking on cakes washed down with booze.

Or as the CSIRO put it, the survey found that “the nation is failing when it comes to embracing a balanced diet, with the national diet score falling well below a healthy level”.

Quantity, quality and variety

The survey, which is still in train, assesses quality, quantity and variety of the different foods you’re eating. The results include an estimate of your compliance with the Australian Dietary Guidelines. The participants’ diet were marked out of 100.

Participants recorded the amounts of fruit, vegetables, breads and cereals, meat and alternatives, dairy foods, and discretionary foods (broadly known as junk foods: Low in nutrition, high in calories).

The researchers also looked at the quality of different components.

This meant answering questions along the lines of:

Are you eating white bread and white rice or their wholegrain equivalents?

How lean (trimmed of fat) is the meat you’re eating?

What type of fat are you using as a spread on your bread (butter, margarine or olive oil)?

How much water are you drinking as a proportion of your total beverage intake?

Finally, the researchers looked at the variety of foods consumed within each of the five healthy food groups.

In case, they’ve slipped your mind …

The five food groups are:

  •  Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties
  • Vegetables and legumes/beans
  • Fruit
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or other alternatives, mostly reduced fat
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans.

So how did we do?

The average diet score was 55 out of 100, barely a pass. In 2015, it was 56. So, we’re slipping.

Women reported slightly better diet quality than men, with an average score of 56 compared to 53 for men. Nothing to boast about.

The greatest difference was for vegetable consumption. Women scored eight points higher for vegetable consumption than men (62 versus 54 out of 100). A score of 70 would be classified as ‘reasonable’ or ‘OK’.

The average score for vegetables was 58: One of the lowest scoring
components, the researchers say.

Only 32 per cent of  Australian adults eat enough vegetables.

Only four out of 10 adults reported to always eat three or more different vegetables at their main meal – “an indicator of a healthy diet”.

Overall, only 32 per cent of Australians are eating enough vegetables.

Despite endless encouragement from GPs, media reports and health sites, we’ve actually gone backwards.

In 2016, 46 per cent of Australians were meeting national dietary guidelines with vegetable consumption.

Older folk and fitness freaks

The diet quality of older adults (people aged over 70) was better than younger Australians’ (18-50 year olds). The oldies scored an average 60 while the youngsters scored 53.

Is this because older people eat less overall? Because they make a little more effort what with mortality knocking at the door? Because they need more fibre?

Whatever the case, retired Australians had the highest average diet score (59).

So did those working in the fitness industry (59). Which is pathetic. All those fitness frauds telling you what to eat and how to step it up … and their own diet falls well short of being OK, let alone excellent.

Construction workers (all those damn pies and soft drinks) and unemployed Australians (who can’t afford to eat) had the lowest score (51).

Where did great and terribly

There were a couple of happy surprises.

We actually got close to meeting the Australian Dietary Guidelines with beverages, achieving a score of 93 out of 100.

The researchers say this high score was achieved “by predominantly choosing water over energy dense drinks such as soft drink or juice”.

This is an excellent development. Sugar-sweetened drinks are a disaster (read our August report).

Meats and alternatives came in second, with Australians registering a collective score of 78 out of 100 for compliance with the dietary guidelines.

This suggests that Australians are eating meat (one serve is 65 grams), poultry, fish and seafood in modest portions (check the guidelines).

More detail of what’s happening with meat etc would be good to see.

The big disaster is discretionary foods

These are often highly processed foods that inflame the ageing brain and cause memory loss, promote colo-rectal cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They tend to have no nutritional value whatsoever.

The average discretionary food consumption was about 28 serves per week. Alcohol, cakes and biscuits, chocolate and confectionary, and takeaway foods were the main culprits.

Men consumed about 10 serves a week more than women, and younger adults about five serves a week more than older adults.

Consumption was highest for those working in construction and the beauty or fashion industries. On average they consume about 48
serves a week.

According to the guidelines, two scoops (75 grams) of regular ice-cream is a single serve

The average national score was a lousy 20.

The other disaster was a low rate of dairy consumption: Milk, yoghurt, cheese. With a national average score of 38, are we looking at spike down the track in osteoporosis. Our bodies need calcium. Dairy is a great source. Clearly we’re not getting enough of it.

What the researchers say

Dr Gilly Hendrie, CSIRO research scientist and co-author of the CSIRO Healthy Diet Score report, in a prepared statement, said:

“Although Australians are often perceived as fit and healthy, the low collective score shows that we just meet the pass mark when it comes to adopting the national dietary recommendations.

“The score is a stark reminder of the work that needs to be done to improve our eating habits and reduce the national waistline.”

The key, she said, was to reduce the amount of discretionary foods being consumed, increase healthy foods including fruit and dairy and alternatives, and aim for variety by eating three or more different types of vegetables with your main meal.

“It is clear that we have a long way to go,” she said.

Care to see how you and diet rate? Go here to take the survey.

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