The Australian Health Survey – what is it and what did it find?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Thursday, 29 May 2014.
Tagged: guides, healthy eating

The Australian Health Survey – what is it and what did it find?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has just released The Australian Health Survey which analysed data from over 12,000 Australians from the 2011-12 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (NNPAS). The ABS website states that “It presents results from a 24-hour dietary recall of food, beverages and dietary supplements, as well as general information on dietary behaviours.”

So just what does it tell us about our eating habits and general nutrition?

What do we, as a nation, eat and drink?

Cereals/grain foods

97% of us ate cereals or grains of some sort. Bread and bread rolls were the most commonly eaten cereal product (66%), with ready-to-eat breakfast cereals the next most popular (36%).

Milk

85% of us consumed milk in some form (dairy not soy, rice etc.) with around two-thirds (68%) drinking milk and almost one-third (32%) eating cheese.

Meat, poultry and game

69% of people surveyed ate meat in some form with chicken being the most common (31%). Beef was consumed by 20% and ham was the most popular processed meat (12%).

Vegetables

75% of us ate veggies with potatoes being the most popular (around one-quarter by weight) of all vegetables eaten but remember that potatoes rank high due to the consumption of chips and fries – not good. One finding of concern was that only 6.8% of the population met the recommended intake of vegetables.

Fruits

60% of us ate fruit but only 54% met the recommended number of serves.

Drinks

Interestingly the most popular beverage consumed was water (87%) followed by coffee (46%), tea (38%) soft drinks and flavoured mineral waters (29%) and alcoholic beverages (25%).

Where do our daily kilojoules come from?

The average energy intake was 9,655 kilojoules (kJ) for males and 7,402 kJ for females. Compare this to the average daily intake of 8,700kJ that is used on food labels for the %DI thumbnails.

45% of our energy needs was provided by carbs with the balance coming from fat (31%), protein (18%), alcohol (3.4%) and dietary fibre (2.2%).

  • More than a third of our daily kilojoules/Calories (35%) came from what are known as 'discretionary foods'. These are foods considered to have little nutritional value and which are often high in saturated fats, sugars, salt and/or alcohol. Another concerning issue is that 14-18 year olds derived a huge 41% of their energy from discretionary foods! Think chocolate, soft drinks, chips and sugary snacks. Hardly healthy!

Vitamin pills and supplements

29% of the people surveyed took at least one dietary supplement (e.g. vitamins, minerals, fish oil) with females (33%) being more likely than males (24%) to have done so. The highest users of supplements were those in the older age groups.

Dieting

More than 2.3 million Australians (13%) aged 15+ were on a diet to lose weight or for some other health reason. This included 15% of females and 11% of males. Dieting was most common in the 51-70 age group where 19% of females and 15% of males were on some kind of diet.

Food allergies and intolerance

17% of Australians aged 2 years or over (that’s 3.7 million people) avoid a food type due to an allergy or intolerance with 7% (1.6 million) avoiding particular foods for cultural, religious or ethical reasons.

The most common food intolerances were cow's milk/dairy (4.5%), gluten (2.5%), shellfish (2.0%) and peanuts (1.4%).

The most commonly avoided food type was pork (3.9%) for cultural, religious or ethical reasons, with 2.1% of people avoiding all meat.

Under-reporting

Under-reporting can be an issue in any survey. People under-report for a variety of reasons ranging from forgetting, to feeling they will be judged in some way if they reveal the whole truth. This survey is not immune from this and the ABS reports that “there appears to be an increase in the level of under-reporting for males between 1995 and 2011-12 [surveys], especially for males aged 19-50.” It also notes that “the level of under-reporting by female respondents also appears to have increased, but to a lesser extent than for males.”

What can we take from this?

There are four main points to take from this survey:

  1. Even though they under-report, the survey clearly shows that men are eating too much and exceeding the recommended daily kilojoule intake by around 12%. This is a compounding problem and will lead to overweight and obesity and all the attendant health problems.
  2. All of us are getting too much of our energy needs from discretionary food sources and this is particularly concerning during teenage years.
  3. We need to do more to encourage people to eat vegetables. They not only provide antioxidants, vitamins, trace minerals and fibre but they fill us up, so reducing the temptation to overeat. Think big volume, few kilojoules/Calories.
  4. While we are doing better in eating the recommended number of fruit serves we need to improve if we are to be a healthier nation. Fruits are especially good as replacement foods for those times we succumb to high kilojoule, high fat, discretionary foods. They take the edge off that sweet craving, give us stacks of nutrients and also fibre.
Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.