An Inconvenient Truth Hard to Swallow

There is no doubt our food environment has a huge influence on our health and wellbeing.

While the issue of overconsuming our favourite junk or discretionary foods and beverages (like sugary drinks, deep-fried fatty foods and pastries) has literally become a taxing debate in the public health world, fixing the food environment around us is not something we as everyday consumers often give much food for thought.

In an ideal world, we would all be frequently enjoying an abundance of fresh, seasonal and sustainable produce, and less highly-processed foods which we know has lost most of its nutritional integrity – in a nutshell we’d be following what is sensibly suggested in The Australian Dietary Guidelines.

However, we as a nation are unfortunately not even close to making this a reality. Not because we’re lazy or don’t have enough knowledge or information at our fingertips about healthy eating, but because our food environment is simply not designed to ‘nudge’ us along in making these healthier choices.

In this day and age no matter where we turn, there is no escape from being exposed to clever junk food advertising in one form or another. Vending machines. Cinemas. Billboards. Posters. Television advertisements. Celebrity endorsements. Sports sponsorship. Music Festivals. Shopping centres. Supermarkets. Too good-to-refuse discount offers. Social media. Clothing. You name it, and there is probably an advertisement for junk food somewhere on it!

The world around us has become immensely saturated with tasty, cheap and convenient energy-dense and nutrient-poor food and beverages, that the thought of spending time cooking in the kitchen has sadly lost its appeal at the cost of our own health, and that too of our younger generations.

As one of many examples, it was recently reported in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition that amongst a sample of over 7800 Australian secondary school students, 14% of those surveyed consumed more than 1 litre of soft drink per week – that’s a crazy 52 litres of the fizzy stuff (being highly caloric and obtaining little nutritional-value) gulped down per year!

It’s an inconvenient truth hard to swallow, but if we don’t weigh up the consequences and act upon them now, then who will?

We don’t even stop to question why we have let this become a normal part of everyday living, and that is a true call for concern.

Here in Australia, we are fortunate enough to have well over 80 000 establishments to choose from while eating out and about. Except, you might want to stop yourself in your tracks before racing out there because a shocking 34.5% of those comprise of fast-food chains and outlets! And if you don’t find that statistic somewhat alarming, that figure jumps up to 45% in the Northern Territory having the highest concentration of fast-food outlets in the country.

It is therefore no surprise to learn fast food outlets are the dominant place we choose to eat outside our homes (44.0%) over restaurants (28.5%), cafes (15.8%), pubs and bars (6.2%) and clubs (5.4%).

Although healthy eating is actually not as expensive as you think, the combo deals, upsizing, toys for the kids, the classic “would you like fries with that?” and other bang for your buck temptations seem too good to resist. Hence why implementing a junk food and/or soft drink tax is such a good idea in showcasing fresh produce as a much more affordable go-to option.

Which poses the question, how can we possibly blame individuals for making ‘bad’ choices about what they eat and feed their families, if our local communities are unable to serve up a healthy food environment to support them? After all, having access to (safe, nutritious and affordable) food is a universal human right worth fighting for.
But don’t get me wrong, we are turning this situation around.

On a food industry level, we are constantly and successfully working on recipe reformulation, such as cutting excess salt, sugar and saturated fat from our food or swapping out ingredients for those with a greater nutritional quality. On a food policy level, we are striving to close loopholes that prevent us from reducing the number and frequency of junk food advertisements seen online and in public. We are constantly evaluating our progress and striving for better outcomes, neatly bundled in the recently released Food Policy Index aiming to improve the diets of all Australians via creating healthy food environments across the nation. However, it’s all a very slow and complex process, which unfortunately means it is going to take some time before we really take notice of the big changes being implemented in the background.

This is clearly not something we cannot leave Jamie Oliver to ambitiously fix on his own either. We all need to, and can contribute to conquering these challenges in small yet significant ways.

First, we must ask ourselves, how can we push for healthier food environments within our own communities? Here are a few simple suggestions:

• Step up to the plate and be a community JunkBuster! The Cancer Council New South Wales has developed an online platform for all of us to boldly and easily voice our concerns amongst our communities and governments surrounding unhealthy junk food advertising and marketing, particularly those directed at unsuspecting children.

• Put your money where your mouth is! If you don’t want unhealthy food outlets seen in every corner of your community, don’t feel obliged or pressured to buy anything from them. Instead, put those savings towards supporting local food business such as your local green grocer or farmers market. Better still, why not gather with a bunch of like-minded and creative thinkers to develop and run community food gardens, group cooking lessons, international food fairs or nutrition education programs to help create the kind of supportive environment you want!

• When it comes to changing up our health behaviours, sometimes wise words go in one ear and out the other, or unfortunately get lost in translation. If you feel people in your community simply aren’t listening, (especially your local members of parliament) then why not tackle or frame these issues using an environmental or an economic lens to help others see the issue of junk food saturation and advertising from a different yet equally important perspective. We only have one planet earth with a finite amount of precious land and resources, so we need enough produce not only to feed and nourish us today, but a plentiful and quality supply for our future generations to enjoy too – and we need to be able to afford it all while we’re at it!

• Nutrition education is critical to set in motion from the get-go. Get kids cooking in the kitchen and learning about fresh food as early as possible. Ensure your school is supportive of your child’s health by ensuring canteen menus are up to scratch by having a solid nutrition policy behind them and predominantly building their meals from each of the core food groups. Keep up-to-date with the latest canteen policies and procedures – New South Wales, your healthy canteen strategy has just undergone a major overhaul, so ensure you are in-the-know here. I’m sure in-school nutrition initiatives such as Crunch & Sip or the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program would be a welcomed move in normalising healthy eating as an important everyday lifestyle behaviour amongst parents, teachers, health professionals and children alike.

The next thing to consider is, how can we fork out healthier habits in a highly saturated fast food environment? Here’s a handful of practical advice:

• If you are seeking out “fast food” options during a busy week (after all, who isn’t?), why not order a box of fresh produce from a local farmer’s markets or another trustworthy supplier and have all your meal prep done at the beginning of the week to quickly cook up when you’re ready?

• If you are ducking out to grab some takeaway, why not walk, run or bike ride to and from your destination, or park your car a few blocks away to squeeze in some extra physical activity?

• If you feel a bit lost and confused when it comes to interpreting food labels, nutrition panels, product health claims or navigating your way through our overwhelming food environment, why not chat to an Accredited Practising Dietitian or a Registered Nutritionist for some guidance or a personalised supermarket tour?

• If you are eating around children, chances are that they will pick up on your eating habits which is likely to follow them into adolescence and adulthood. Try as best you can to set an example by choosing meal options or venues which mainly offer a wide variety of fresh seasonal produce from the core food groups – and watch out for those portion sizes! Monkey see, monkey do!

But remember, life is too short to not enjoy our favourite foods!

We don’t have to eat certain foods purely because of their nutritional value or composition. We often eat certain foods because we have an affinity for certain cuisines and their uniquely associated tastes, textures and aromas. We eat to embrace our cultural, family and religious traditions, to celebrate some of life’s great moments, and to enjoy the company of others – and those things should never be forgotten.

It’s all about context!

If you want to shift your mindset about eating without the guilt factor, or want to let go of having a strict diet mentality, then bringing about a sense of curiosity and mindfulness to your meals can really help. It’s not about judging other people’s or your own eating behaviours or preferences. We are all entitled to having our own reasons for crafting certain attitudes and behaviours around food, irrespective of being health-related or not.

Despite the state of our current food environment being messy to say the least, by unpacking a bit of common sense and harnessing the power of cooperative action, we can hopefully light up the path towards a healthier future, a lot less cluttered by junk that consumes us now.

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