With more than two in three Australian adults and one in four children above a healthy weight, researchers say food availability, affordability and marketing are contributing to bad choices.
Excess weight and unhealthy diets are among the top three contributors to Australia’s total disease burden. They come just after tobacco, which is the leading contributor according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
In a paper published recently in Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute, lead author Dr Alexandra Chung from Monash University’s Health and Social Care Unit argues that commercial factors play a major role.
‘Commercial factors that influence food choices in Australia include food availability, affordability and marketing,’ said Dr Chung. ‘Children in particular are exposed to unhealthy food marketing every day – on television, via digital media, on billboards and public transport infrastructure, in stores and on product packaging.
‘This marketing influences children’s attitudes and preferences around food and leads to increased consumption of marketed foods, and we know the majority of food marketing out there is for unhealthy food and drinks,’ she said.
The paper’s authors are concerned about the public implications of the ready availability of ultra processed food and the emphasis on its marketing.
‘In terms of food choices, the power currently sits with the processed food industry, whose practices shape the food environment where unhealthy food and beverages are heavily promoted,’ said Dr Chung.
‘This makes it difficult for individuals to make healthy choices. In addition, unhealthy food marketing targets low socioeconomic neighbourhoods.
‘Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy food marketing, exacerbating inequalities in health,’ she said.
Time for action
The federal government has already indicated an intent to act on the issue. Australia’s National Obesity Strategy 2022-2032 signals the need to change the systems, environments and commercial determinants that affect Australians’ opportunities to live active and healthy lives.
Dr Chung and her co-authors are calling for urgent action on this issue, and their paper outlines a number of ways that governments can reduce the harmful impact of commercial interests on people’s diets.
‘We need to ensure we hold the government to account, to make sure that the actions detailed in the National Obesity Strategy are prioritised and implemented,’ said Dr Chung.
‘Public policy measures are needed to address the environmental drivers to improve health and reduce the growing burden of obesity. Examples of necessary policies include protecting children from unhealthy food marketing, so they can develop healthy food habits free from commercial influence that aims to tell them what to eat and what to ask their parents to buy.’
In terms of addressing the equity issue, Dr Chung said the solution requires food and social policies to reduce the price of healthy foods, both in absolute terms and relative to unhealthy foods, as well as increasing income for families experiencing poverty.
The International Congress on Obesity (ICO), in Melbourne from 18-22 October, is an opportunity for experts in obesity prevention to share research and advance understanding of what needs to be done to build equitable access to healthy food, both in Australia and worldwide.
Dr Chung’s paper is part of a special issue of Public Health Research & Practice focused on reframing the obesity narrative, which can be viewed at www.phrp.com.au.
It was produced in partnership with the Health and Social Care Unit at Monash University, with support of VicHealth, and is published in the lead up to the ICO.