Discretionary foods – what the heck are they?

Written by Guest post on Wednesday, 02 November 2016.
Tagged: health, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, junk food, nutrition, snacks

Discretionary foods – what the heck are they?

Discretionary foods are often called ‘junk foods’or ‘treat foods’. However, I prefer to call them, ‘sometimes foods’. You know the ones – cakes, biscuits, pies, potato chips, pizza, confectionery, soft drinks and alcohol. 

These foods do not fit into the five core food groups.

Unlike most foods within the core groups, these foods are not whole foods. They are often highly processed and are too high in saturated fat and/or added sugars, added salt or alcohol. That usually means they are also too high in kilojoules (Calories). Catherine has written about them as well, here.

Let’s look at an example

Take banana bread for example. There's not much banana there.

Once you combine the white flour, brown sugar, eggs, milk, butter, cinnamon and bananas, bake it then cut it into 10 slices, you end up with a 1000kJ (or 240 Calorie) snack that contains 4 teaspoons of sugar but only one-fifth of a banana!

Discretionary foods also contain little or no fibre. (Fibre keeps us feeling full and maintains healthy bowel habits.) What’s more, discretionary foods often lack a bunch of essential vitamins and minerals.

To put it bluntly, discretionary foods are kilojoule-dense and nutrient poor.

Because of this, they are not essential for growth, development, or our overall physical health – hence the title discretionary.

Their good points

Yes, they do have some. The Australian Dietary Guidelines note that discretionary foods add variety and can be included sometimes in small amounts, especially by those who are physically active and not overweight.

As a nutrition professional, I recognise that all foods play a part in our lives and contribute to that overall joy of eating. For instance:

  • what’s a birthday without a slice of birthday cake?
  • what’s Christmas without your uncle’s pavlova or your grandmother’s plum pudding?
  • what’s a Sunday roast without your mum’s bread and butter pudding?

That said, it is important to recognise that, if we choose to consume these foods, we need to think carefully about our portion sizes and how often we eat them. The Australian Dietary Guidelines specify a serve as providing only 600kJ (150 Cals), but usually we eat much more.

So how much are we eating of them?

Well it seems that these ‘sometimes foods’ have gone from the occasional indulgence to an everyday thing. The Australian Health Survey 2011-2012 shows that, on average, just over one-third (35 per cent) of our total daily kilojoule intake comes from discretionary foods. That’s way too high.

When I look at the breakdown of the stats, consumption of discretionary foods is highest among 14-18 years olds, with 41 per cent of their energy coming from these ‘sometimes foods’. They are predominately confectionery, cereal/nut/fruit/seed bars, soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters.

At this age children are becoming increasingly independent. They’re starting part-time jobs, getting their licences and spending more time away from home. We live in an environment where discretionary foods are readily and cheaply available. With extra money in their pockets and more freedom of choice, it’s hardly surprising they’d choose a meat pie and chips over a wholegrain cheese salad sandwich.

The good news is that as we age, the proportion of our kilojoules that comes from discretionary choices tends to decrease, with females having a significantly lower proportion of consumption than males.

So what types of foods are contributing the most?

  1. It’s no surprise that in Australia, with its strong drinking culture, alcoholic beverages are sitting in number one spot, contributing 4.8 per cent of all kilojoules consumed.

We all know someone who loves a glass of wine after work to relax, or a beer at the footy (game of football). We celebrate special occasions with drinks, and a BBQ and drinks go hand in hand like summer and thongs. People use alcohol for a wide range of reasons and in different social and cultural contexts, and often this is overlooked as a contributor to our overall energy intake.

  1. Second on the list are cakes, muffins, scones and cake-type desserts, contributing 3.4 per cent of our energy intake. Just as the footy and beers go together, Australians love their coffee and what’s a coffee date without cake?
  2. Confectionery and cereal/nut/fruit/seed bars were third on the list, most likely because of their convenient nature - wrapped in plastic, consumed with one hand and readily available at the checkouts of supermarkets, milk bars and petrol stations (and often at super cheap prices).
  3. Next comes the Aussie meat pies and vanilla slices (with pastries contributing 2.6 per cent).
  4. Sweet and savoury biscuits come in at number five most likely due to our cuppa tea and biscuit culture.
  5. Interestingly I found soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters only contributed only 1.9 per cent to the overall energy intake, suggesting that the message is getting through at last.
  6. Other discretionary foods include potatoes (as chips/fries etc.) 1.7 per cent; snack foods 1.5 per cent; frozen milk products 1.5 per cent; and sugar, honey and syrups 1.3 per cent.

The bottom line

All these foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern and they clearly contribute to our social and cultural habits. However, the reality is that we are eating (and drinking) way too much of these ‘sometimes foods’ and our expanding waistlines are the evidence.

For general everyday meals and snacks, it’s worth considering swapping the pies, burgers and chocolate bars for foods from the core food groups, and for your children’s lunch boxes consider adding a tub of cut fruit, or a box of sultanas, or a yoghurt instead of that muesli bar.

If you like to include discretionary foods, try and limit to one food you really love and enjoy every mouthful.

Thanks to dietitian Emma Stubbs for writing this post. You can find more of her down-to-earth nutrition advice at her blogsite at https://broccoliandblueberries.com