October 16, 2021

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Healthy Life Forever

‘Good shock value’: CSIRO holds a mirror to Australia’s junk food habits | Australian lifestyle

What happens when you take every culinary indulgence – every afternoon biscuit, ham sarnie, scoop of ice-cream and post-work glass of wine – and add them together over the course of a month?

The Junk Food Analyser, a quiz slash come-to-Jesus moment from the CSIRO, does just that. And the results can be confronting.

“Our intention wasn’t to scare people,” Dr Gilly Hendrie, the Australian science agency’s lead researcher on the project, says. “It was to bring people’s attention to all the different types of foods that go in this category.”

“This category”, which the CSIRO generally refers to as “discretionary foods”, includes alcohol, takeaway, processed meats and other more typical junk foods such as chips, cake and soft drink. Things that are “energy dense and nutrient poor”.

“They’re defined by the nutrient content and also as things that aren’t a necessity of a healthy diet.

“This is the area of our diet where we see the least compliance with the dietary guidelines,” says Hendrie, referring to the recommendations laid out by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Department of Health on how to eat to avoid illness and promote wellbeing.

The junk food score of a man in his 40s

A junk-food quiz score showing an average of 4.2 serves a day – considerably above recommended levels. Photograph: CSIRO Junk Food Analyser

The man says:

Totting up all the crap that you eat does make you think: yeah, maybe hold off on the crisps. I’m a stickler for ‘everything in moderation’ so a bit of fast food here and there isn’t a bad thing. Trying to cut out everything is an unrealistic goal. Should I eat less junk food? Sure? Am I bothered? A bit. But I like crisps. Much of our consumption of fast food, I think, just comes from convenience and shortness of time, but we could choose better and the survey definitely raises that point.

It is recommended that Australians consume between zero and three serves of discretionary foods a day. Data from the Australian Health Survey suggests our intake is far higher, around 5.1 serves a day – the equivalent of 15 sweet biscuits, or a bottle-and-a-quarter of wine.

In Guardian Australia’s office, where about 15 staff members took the quiz, the majority fell outside a healthy range of junk food consumption. For many, the analyser served to tell them something they already knew – “the official news is I drink too much and eat too many cakes” – but others found some elements surprising. “A full meat pie is four serves?!” one colleague exclaimed.

A five-minute quiz based on population-level data is a blunt instrument for reflecting a complex set of circumstances. For instance, while the Junk Food Analyser’s results page says that those consuming five or more serves of discretionary foods a day may struggle to maintain their weight, in our office those scoring highest for junk food consumption tended to be physically active men who’d never had weight issues.

The junk food score of a woman in her 30s

A score showing 3.4 portions of junk food a day
A result of 3.4 portions of junk food a day – almost three-quarters of that from alcohol. Photograph: CSIRO

The official news is I drink too much and eat too many cakes. I have been on the CSIRO diet since January … and really don’t eat anywhere near the amount of sweet stuff I used to. But it’s still telling me it’s too much. I’m like: where is the joy here?

“We need to think about these foods in the context of our whole diet,” Hendrie says. “There’s a place for these foods in a healthy diet, just in small amounts and occasionally. If you are really active and of a healthy weight, you can aim for the top end of that range.”

While weight management is the reason most often emphasised for eating well, Hendrie says there are a host of other reasons to consume less junk food, even when weight is not a factor. “Fruit and vegetables are high in many vitamins and minerals, high consumption is associated with reduced risk of some cancers and heart disease … With a healthy diet, people report more energy and a feeling of wellbeing.”

The junk food score of a man in his 30s

A junk food rating of 0.3
Having 0.3 junk-food portions a day is near the healthiest end of the target range. Photograph: CSIRO

I have to admit, I am one of those people who flaunts their healthy lifestyle … My easy go-to comparison is car fuel – ‘you can either fill your body with premium fuel, and you’ll operate better, or with dirty fuel and it’ll just chug along’.

The elephant in the junk food room, for both our office and the Australian population as a whole, is alcohol. Alcohol comprises 20.8% of the adult Australian population’s junk food intake, the CSIRO has found, and among those who took the survey for this story, particularly women, it was often more than 50% of total junk food consumed.

Dominique Robert-Hendren is head of clinical innovation at Hello Sunday Morning, a non-profit dedicated to helping people change their relationship with alcohol. She says many Australians “don’t consider alcohol a food at all”.

“People don’t want to consider it as being a junk food,” she says, but “it is considered a food item because it supplies your body with calories … however the calories are empty”.

Robert-Hendren says overindulging in junk food and alcohol often have similar underlying causes, and often go “hand in hand”. “We know that when people consume a lot of alcohol it drives them to consume junk food … it’s not uncommon to see people with binge-eating disorders also misuse alcohol.”

The junk food score of a woman in her 30s

A junk food daily-serve rating of 2.8
Much of these 2.8 junk-food serves a day come from alcohol. Photograph: CSIRO

I’m really careful about my snacking habits because when I’m not it leads to weight gain, but alcohol just hasn’t been a factor in how I think about what I eat. I know the overall score is in the healthy range, but seeing just how much of it is booze feels really full-on.

Dovetailing with the Australian Health Survey’s findings, Robert-Hendren says Hello Sunday Morning’s research “shows one in four Australians drink alcohol at risky levels”. There is one respect in which alcohol differs from other discretionary foods, though: “Drinking is going to have a consequential impact on the person’s safety … getting behind a vehicle, performing certain tasks … It impacts our way of thinking and our response rate.”

The amount that is safe to drink varies depending on age, height, weight and gender, but Robert-Hendren says: “As a rule of thumb, no more than 10 standard drinks in one week. And you wouldn’t want to be drinking more than four on any occasion.”

The trouble is, it can be quite difficult to keep track of your alcohol intake, and Robert-Hendren says people tend to under-report how much they consume.

Upon taking the Junk Food Analyser quiz, one staffer mused: “Is two drinks actually four? Is it more like five times a week that I drink, not three?”

Alcohol isn’t unique in this way. It’s true of most discretionary foods. “Our portion consumed far exceeds the serve size – for discretionary foods it provides 600kJ. It’s not a lot,” Hendrie says. “And the portions with which we buy these foods – the way they’re packaged – is much larger than a serve, and when we buy them they become easy to over-consume.

“I do think generally the food environment challenges us … We need to be educated and have quite strong willpower. If something comes in a bag, we tend to eat the bag.”

The junk food score of a man in his 30s

A score of six junk-food serves a day
Dietary changes are suggested with six daily serves of junk food. Photograph: CSIRO

I think it was confronting how much junk food I eat, so it had some good shock value. But overall, I was angry about the results. It seems ridiculous to me to consider only the energy-intake side of the equation and not output. I go running three times a week, total 20km plus; at least 45 minutes of walking my dog per day. But my results would lump me in with people who do nothing. Sure, somebody who knows nothing about me would say I ‘may struggle’ to maintain my weight, except that I’ve weighed between 67 and 70kg for 10 years.

Add to that the fact that socially we tend to use both discretionary foods and alcohol to celebrate – something Hendrie and Robert-Hendren note – and it becomes even more challenging to stay within a healthy range. Junk foods may not provide nutrients but, Hendrie says, “they provide fun”.

When I refer to the end result of the quiz, which breaks your discretionary food consumption down into a pie chart, as a “wheel of shame”, Hendrie is a little taken aback. But getting people to reflect on their habits is the goal. “This is just bringing some attention to this area which hasn’t necessarily had a lot of research, and by no means are we stopping here. This is just to raise the awareness.”

In terms of convenience, social norms and serving portions, the odds are stacked against a diet that is low in junk foods. But as Hendrie says: “We just need to start finding ways to reduce our consumption.”