Australia is falling behind other countries in tackling the unhealthy state of our diet.
Several other countries, including the UK, Canada and Mexico, have recently taken significant steps to help improve people’s nutrition and prevent obesity.
But our latest assessment, published as part of the International Obesity Congress, found major gaps in Australian government policy compared to international best practice, with limited policy progress over the past five years.
What did we assess?
Our federal government assessment included a scorecard of how Australia is progressing in 50 policy areas to tackle unhealthy diets. These policy areas include key influences on what we buy and what we eat, including policies that affect the price and affordability of different foods, the types of foods available, how foods are labeled, and the how foods are promoted.
We have worked closely with government officials to document ongoing actions in each policy area. We then assessed how existing policies compared to international benchmarks.
Finally, we made recommendations to address the gaps, prioritizing them based on their relative importance and feasibility. Eighty-four experts from 37 organizations participated in the evaluation and prioritization process.
Read more: No, it’s not just a lack of control that makes Australians overweight. This Is What Drives Our Unhealthy Eating Habits
How does Australia compare to other countries?
We found that the implementation of globally recommended policies to improve people’s diets and tackle obesity in Australia falls far short of international best practice.
There has been only limited political progress in Australia over the past five years.
The regions where Australia is doing well
One of the only areas where Australia did well was in food labelling, where some of the regulations around ingredient lists, nutrition information panels and health claims ranked among the best in the world.
The other area that got Australia’s top marks is that the GST does not apply to fresh fruit and vegetables, helping to lower their prices compared to other less healthy products.
Which other countries are doing better?
Several other countries have policies in place to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods and make it easier for people to choose healthier options.
Latin American countries are leading the way globally. Chile has implemented comprehensive restrictions on television advertising for unhealthy foods, prominent warning labels on unhealthy product packaging, and taxes on sugary drinks. Mexico has similar policies.
Elsewhere in the world, more than 50 countries now have taxes on sugary drinks. It is clear that these taxes have reduced the consumption of the taxed products, while encouraging manufacturers of soft drinks to reduce the sugar content of their drinks.
Several other governments are taking strong action to protect children from exposure to unhealthy food marketing. As an example, the UK is set to ban advertisements for unhealthy foods online and on TV before 9pm from 2024. Canada has similar laws before its parliament.
The UK has also just introduced major changes to how supermarkets operate. Laws that came into effect this month mean that unhealthy products can no longer be displayed in prominent in-store locations, such as store entrances and checkout areas.
Additionally, the UK has proposed banning price discounts on unhealthy foods, although implementation remains uncertain with the recent change in government leadership.
Several other innovative policies are in place internationally. For example, in some parts of Mexico, retailers cannot sell unhealthy foods to children. And in Argentina, there are laws dictating the maximum sodium (salt) content in a range of products.
Read more: The tax on sugary drinks works; now is the time to target cakes, cookies and snacks
How bad are Australian diets?
Unhealthy diets and obesity are major contributors to poor health in Australia.
Less than 7% of Australians have a healthy diet that meets Australian Dietary Guidelines.
Almost 65% of Australian adults and 25% of Australian children are overweight or obese.
While there isn’t good data on how these stats have changed over the past few years, things have likely gotten worse since the COVID pandemic began.
Unless we see comprehensive government action to improve people’s diets, there will be huge health and financial costs to individuals, communities and the economy as a whole.
Read more: BMI underestimates obesity in Australia, waist circumference should also be measured
What steps should Australia take?
Federal government policy action is needed to improve people’s diets and fight obesity. This includes:
protect children from exposure to the marketing of unhealthy food and drink through comprehensive and consistent national legislation
implement a health tax on sugary drinks (a tax on sugar) and other unhealthy foods, while ensuring the affordability of healthy foods
improve food labeling by mandating the Health Star Rating program and requiring warning labels on products high in added sugar, sodium (salt) and/or saturated fat.
What holds us back?
Over the past 12 months, the former federal government released key strategies in this area, including the National Preventive Health Strategy (2021-2030) and the National Obesity Strategy (2022-2032). But that has yet to result in any changes on the ground.
Above all, the Australian community strongly supports governments to impose higher marketing standards to support children’s health and wellbeing. Over 75% of Australians also support unhealthy food warning labels.
It is promising to see momentum building around a legislative ban on the marketing of unhealthy food and drink to children.
But now is the time for the federal government to catch up with the rest of the world and implement meaningful policy change to help Australians improve their diets.
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