Obesity and chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes are driving premature deaths in Australia and around the world.

A central thesis to explain why obesity continues to rise suggests that we live in an ‘obesogenic environment’ – an environment where the choices we’re presented with day-to-day make it easier to put on weight and eat unhealthily.

That extends to the walkability of our suburbs, the prevalence of cheap fast foods and the distance you have to travel to get to a supermarket that offers fresh, healthy options.

Processed foods have been an area of concern for public health officials for decades, but just how much of the typical Australian’s diet is made up of processed foods?

In this study, the researchers split foods into four categories – unprocessed or minimally processed, processed ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods (like soft drinks, sweet snacks and chips – distinguished from processed foods because of their high counts of sugar and fats and because they require almost no cooking or preparation).

They pulled information from a national survey of Australians that collected information about the foods people ate over a two-day period.

They found that for the average Australian, 42 per cent of their daily intake came from ultra-processed food and a further 15 per cent was from processed foods (things like bread, cheese and cured meats).

In some people that ultra-processed number was as low as 12 per cent, all the way up to three quarters of a person’s diet. And a diet that was high in processed foods meant a diet that was low in nutrients that are protective against diseases – things like dietary fibre.

Implications

The authors argue these findings have policy implications for Australia – that we need better labelling on our foods and the promotion of healthy foods.

They also raise the prospect of restricting the sale of unhealthy foods in schools and healthcare facilities (which is already happening in many places) and taxation – like a sugar tax – to make processed foods less appealing.

Last Reviewed: 28/04/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Machado, et al (2019). Ultra-processed foods and recommended intake levels of nutrients linked to non-communicable diseases in Australia: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-029544.