New dietary guidelines – evidence for healthy choices more certain

Few recommendations have changed since 2003 but the evidence has strengthened. Image from shutterstock.com

After nearly four years in the making, around 55,000 research publications reviewed, nutrients modelled into food and food groups, independent expert review and several rounds of consultations, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) launches its revised Australian Dietary Guidelines today.

What has changed since the 2003 guidelines? Surprisingly little in the way of main conclusions but the evidence base for recommendations has strengthened.

Enjoy a wide variety of foods from the five food groups – plenty of vegetables, fruit, grains (mainly wholemeal), lean meats and other high-protein sources, milk and alternatives and drink plenty of water. Match this with physical activity. Limit intake of foods with saturated fats, added salt and added sugars and drink alcohol in moderation. Support breastfeeding. Prepare and store food safely.

You knew all that, right? Then, why are so many of us overweight?

While NHMRC has being developing the guidelines, there has been media commentary attacking various drafts, even up to last week. This was not unexpected; there are many competing interests in this field. Producing and selling food is a major part of our national economy; television cooking programs rate highly and eating is something we all do every day.

There are many advocates of particular “diets”, especially those that promote weight loss; there are researchers funded by food companies and organisations and movements with their own interests and views; there are strong cultural and even religious views and practices about food; and growers and sellers of food have an understandable interest in the public buying their particular products.

Perhaps too, in a country where the majority of adults are overweight and a quarter are obese, there are complex personal sentiments at work. The foods that are particularly attractive to us are often also the ones we know we shouldn’t eat so much.

Of course, there is room for debate – that’s the stuff of science. But the community needs always to think about the possibility of vested interests influencing the debate about what is healthy and what is not, and of the potential influence of sponsors of nutrition research findings, just as we have become more aware of and vigilant about conflict of interest in pharmaceutical research and clinical trials.

There are many challenges to people adopting the new Australian Dietary Guidelines: awareness of them, personal inclinations and motivation, access to affordable healthy food by some people and communities, the many conflicting messages in the public debates and the power of advertising. Easy-to-use resources to support the guidelines will shortly appear on our website.

Australian farmers provide us with an abundance of healthy foods. Will we chose them and limit eating energy-dense convenience foods?

A quarter of all adult Australians are already obese and around two thirds overweight, so for our own sakes let’s hope so. Unless we do, the health problems and their costs will be a major burden on our future.

Further reading: New Australian dietary guidelines: The Conversation’s experts respond