Are the Australian Dietary Guidelines out of date?

25 September 2020 Sophie Scott
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Clearly, the Guidelines aren’t working because Australians are just getting bigger. Is this true? Can we blame the guidelines? Let’s investigate.

What are the Australian Dietary Guidelines?

The Australian Dietary Guidelines are an example of population-based nutrition advice and contains information and shows the quantities of the foods that we should be consuming for a healthy and balanced diet. Globally, over 100 countries have similar guides to help their people know what and how much to eat for optimal health.

Our current guidelines were created in 2013, after four years of analysing the latest research on the links between nutrition and disease risk. This means the data used is now over a decade old and because nutrition research evolves, it’s likely some aspects of the guidelines will need a good shake-up.

We’re probably all familiar with the associated food pyramid. But is it still relevant?

The first version of a food pyramid was published in Sweden in 1974. At the base of the pyramid are the foods we should eat most, and at the top are the foods that should be limited.

In 2015, Nutrition Australia published a new version of the Healthy Eating Pyramid which is similar to the previous, but instead of grains being at the bottom, vegetables and fruits are. Many nutritionists are happy with this change, because veggies and fruits should be our main source of carbohydrate rich foods, rather than processed grain foods. It’s also good to see different foods in the grains section, like oats and quinoa, rather than just bread and pasta.

Belgium released a new food pyramid in 2018. The pyramid is turned upside down and food groups divided into green, orange and red zones, with a focus on plant-based foods. I like this way of depicting what to eat because it is simplified and clear. People read from top to bottom, so it makes sense that the most important foods should be at the top.

There is also the double pyramid which takes into consideration the environmental impacts of food choice. In these pyramids, which are based on the Mediterranean diet, the foods we are meant to eat most of, vegetables and fruits also have a lower environmental impact than the foods we should eat less of in comparison – meat, fish and cheese.

The Americans have ditched the food pyramid altogether, instead opting for MyPlate – a plate image showing the relative amounts of food that should be included in the average diet.

The problem with this plate model (and the food pyramid) is that people don’t really eat all of these foods at one meal, it’s meant to be more of an average diet across the day or week.

Australia’s answer to My Plate is the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. This is slightly different as it depicts pictures and examples which I think is helpful. This guide is essentially the same thing as the pyramid, just in a different format.

Generally, the guide is helpful, however one critique is that in the grains section, white rice and white pasta are included which aren’t nutritionally ideal as they’re more processed than their wholegrain counterparts. The other critique is types of oils depicted outside the plate. I would promote fats like olive oil and small amounts of butter over polyunsaturated fats like margarine and sunflower oil. The benefits of polyunsaturated fats found in these types of oils and spreads are being scrutinised and they may in fact have adverse effects on health.

My predictions for the next version of the guidelines are:

  1. Focus on sustainability. There will be a discussion around food waste, food miles and protein sources. Recommendations will take into consideration the environmental footprint of food choice.
  2. Revision on eggs, dairy and meat. The Heart Foundation’s new position statements suggest that full fat dairy is fine for the general population, they lift the limit on eggs and meat is recommended to be consumed a maximum of 1-3 times per week.
  3. Little change in the core messages of encouraging people to emphasise real whole foods over processed junk food.

Research suggests that if people stick to the dietary guidelines, they have 30% less risk of developing obesity. Eating to the guidelines works to reduce disease risk, and the pyramid is still relevant.

The problem isn’t the guidelines or the pyramid, the problem is that our diets aren’t even remotely close to the guidelines. 96 percent of Aussies don’t eat enough veggies. What are we eating instead? 35 percent of our energy intake comes from junk foods – burgers, chips, ice-cream, alcohol and pizza.

Sophie Scott

Senior Trainer/Assessor – Nutrition and Dietetics

Sophie is passionate about nutrition, fitness and behaviour change coaching. As a Registered Nutritionist, Sophie takes a wholistic approach to nutrition, focusing on people’s relationship with food, driving a shift to a healthier approach to eating.

Sophie has worked as Personal Trainer and Group Ex Instructor for many years. She has taught a range of group fitness classes from yoga and pilates to Zumba™ and bootcamp. She started teaching at a gym in Vanuatu, then moved to Wellington, New Zealand to launch her own business, fitandfed, focusing on women’s health and fitness, before moving back home to Australia.

Now the Head Trainer - Nutrition at FIAFitnation, Sophie inspires the next wave of fitness professionals and nutrition coaches.

She has extensive experience in the education field, initially working in the area of environmental education, assisting people green up their lives, before moving into the health and fitness industry. Sophie has also presented and written scripts for a number of media outlets including the Eco Reno series on Channel 7’s Sunrise program.

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