New Australian Dietary Guidelines were published on February 18th 2013. Hundreds of pages of information are available here. The main “Eat for health: Australian Dietary Guidelines” document alone is 226 pages.
The latest guidelines acknowledge the extent of the problem: “If current trends continue in Australia, it is estimated that by 2025, 83% of men and 75% of women aged 20 years or more will be overweight or obese.” (p12) This is also a tacit admission that the 2003 guidelines haven’t helped. So are the 2013 guidelines any better?
I am very familiar with the 2003 Australian Dietary Guidelines, as I analysed them in some detail in my 2010 book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it? Let’s look at the revised (2013) guidelines in comparison to the 2003 ones, to see if Australian advisors have come up with anything to change this predicted trajectory of obesity.
The three key guidelines
The dietary guidelines for Australians are set by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Like the USA guidelines, the Australian guidelines have the stated aim of promoting the potential benefits of healthy eating to reduce the risk of diet-related disease and also to improve the community’s health and wellbeing. The Australian government has been providing nutrition advice for more than 75 years. The 2003 document was the third edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults. The second edition was published in 1992. The NHMRC has also published Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents and the Dietary Guidelines for Older Australians was published in 1999.
The three main pieces of advice in the 2003 dietary guidelines were:
1) Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods:
– Eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits;
– Eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably whole grain;
– Include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives;
– Include milks, yoghurts, cheeses and/or alternatives. Reduced-fat varieties should be chosen, where possible;
– Drink plenty of water.
2) Take care to:
– Limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake;
– Choose foods low in salt;
– Limit your alcohol intake if you choose to drink;
– Consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars.
3) Prevent weight gain: be physically active and eat according to your energy needs.
The three main pieces of advice in the 2013 dietary guidelines are:
Guideline 1: To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs.
Guideline 2: Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five groups every day:
– Plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans;
– Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley;
– Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans;
– Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years).
And drink plenty of water.
Guideline 3: Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol.
a) Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat such as many biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps and other savoury snacks.
b) Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added salt.
c) Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionary, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks.
d) If you choose to drink alcohol, limit intake. For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.
The order has changed, and the 2013 guidelines are more verbose (I left some detail out), but that’s it. Nothing here will make a difference therefore.
The fundamental error
The 2013 guidelines spell out the fundamental error nicely for us with this extract (p16):
“The estimated Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) related to reduced risk of chronic disease are:
– 20–35% of total energy intake from fat;
– 45–65% from carbohydrate;
– 15–25% from protein.”
This basic lack of understanding about macronutrients (what we know as carbs, fat and protein) and what humans need in their food, is at the heart of the problem. Both sides of the nutritional debate would agree that protein intake of approximately 15-25% is healthy. The real food side would not worry if it went higher, but only as part of a natural intake of real food. Both sides would agree that unnaturally high levels of protein can be dangerous (they can deplete vitamin A and cause liver damage through excessive demands placed with protein metabolism).
Given that everything must add to 100%, if we agree on protein, the only debate we can have is over fat vs carbohydrate. Real foodies say “eat fat, fear carbs.” Dietary advisors say “eat carbs, fear fat.” Real food tends to be naturally high in fat (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, oils etc). Fake food tends to be naturally high in carb (pasta, bread, cereals, and all wheat derivatives).
When fat was first demonised in the UK in the 1984 nutritional guidelines, it was fascinating to see the rationale positioned as – we don’t know that carbs are good, but we think that fat is bad and people need to eat something, so it needs to be carbs. The exact same rationale was given to me by the Food Standard Agency in 2009 when I wrote to them and asked why they recommended carbs over fat.
A basic understanding of human nutrition needs would confirm that the main part of our calorie need is to service what we call our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – the things that the body needs to do each day, even if we’re lying in bed all day and don’t move (i.e. when we don’t need energy to move).
An average woman, doing exercise 1-3 times a week, needs approximately 2,000 calories a day. Approximately 1,500 of these are for BMR needs – cell repair, fighting infection, building bone density, running the body etc. The macronutrients needed to do these jobs are fat and protein. Carbs, as dietary advisors love to tell us, are for energy. And that’s all they are for. Our average woman needs approximately 500 calories for energy. These can come in the form of fat or carbohydrate (the body will use protein if it has to, but as a last resort). So eating 100% of our intake in the form of fat and protein would meet 100% of our needs. Eating 100% of our intake in the form of carbohydrate would meet 25% of our needs. The remaining 75% of carbohydrate would be surplus to requirements. The body would not be able to use this for BMR and would store the carbohydrate as fat. That’s how we get fat and sick.
The Australian government is telling its citizens to eat 45-65% of their calorie intake in the form of carbohydrate. Ian Thorpe (if he still swims) may be able to use up this kind of energy intake. Your average Australian will not. The Australian government is making its citizens fat and sick with this one piece of advice alone.
Servings of carbohydrate
The amount of carbohydrate specifically recommended in the 2003 guidelines was quite spectacular. Pregnant women, breastfeeding women, women over the age of 60, men over the age of 60 all had individual and specific recommendations. The standard advice for women aged 19-60 (not pregnant or breastfeeding) and men aged 19-60 was as follows:
|“Extra foods” (Junk basically)|
Sample serves are:
– Cereals/grains – 1 serving would be 2 slices (60 grams) bread, 1 cup cooked rice, pasta or noodles;
– Vegetables – 1 serving would be 75 grams cooked vegetables, 1 cup salad vegetables, 1 small potato;
– Fruit – 1 serving would be 1 medium piece (150 grams) of fruit, 1 cup diced pieces or canned fruit, 1 cup fruit juice;
– Dairy – 1 serving would be 1 cup (250 millilitres) fresh milk, 2 slices (40 grams) cheese, 1 small carton (200 grams) yoghurt;
– Lean meat/fish/pulses – 1 serving would be 65-100 grams cooked meat or chicken, 80-120 grams cooked fish fillet, 2 small eggs, 1 cup cooked pulses.
An Australian woman, following this 2003 optimally healthy eating advice, could eat 12 slices of bread, three cups of pasta, five small potatoes, two cups of fruit juice, a cup of cooked beans and two servings of junk food every day. This is a staggering amount and proportion of carbohydrate. If I ate a fraction of that, I would be fat in no time.
P39 of the 2003 NHMRC report actually spelled out how to ensure that Australian citizens consume this evolutionary unprecedented level of carbohydrate:
– “Consume breads with each meal;
– Regularly use rice, couscous, pasta or noodles to accompany hot dishes;
– Eat breakfast cereals daily;
– Include whole grain cereals as extenders to soups and casseroles;
– Use oats in crumble toppings on desserts;
– Choose grain-based snacks such as low-fat cereal bars, muffins and popcorn.”
Strewth! And Aussies wonder why they got fat!
The 2013 guidelines are little changed from these 2003 carbohydrate feast tips. The food groups have changed a little (beans and pulses mainly). The main adult category has been changed from 19-60 year olds to 19-50 year olds. Advice for the over 50s is for slightly fewer servings than the servings recommended for the 19-50 year olds.
– Cereal and grain servings have been revised to be a minimum of 6 for both men and women aged 19-50, as opposed to the previous ranges of 6-12 for men and 4-9 for women.
– Vegetable servings are now a minimum of 6 portions for men and 5 for women. Beans and pulses are now part of this vegetable group, however, so someone could have 5-6 portions of baked beans a day and tick the box.
– Dairy has increased to a minimum of 2.5 servings a day – up from 2 servings a day. Dairy Australia is a partner of the Dieticians Association of Australia. Enough said!
– Australian advisors have gone nuts for beans and pulses – they appear in both the vegetables category and in the lean meat/fish/pulses category. The servings in this latter group have gone up since the 2003 guidelines from 1 serving for men and women to a minimum of 3 servings for men and 2 for women.
Those minimums are inexplicable. While admitting that the country is heading towards 83% of men and 75% of women being overweight or obese within the next 10-15 years, minimum food intakes are being emphasised.
Let’s finally look at the Australian summary diagram for ‘healthy’ eating. The 2003 plate can be seen here.
The Australian plate was already better than the UK eatbadly plate for the following reasons: a) it had no implied brands – no cornflakes implying Kelloggs, no cola implying Coca-cola, no baked beans implying Heinz etc b) it had no junk segment – the junk is off the plate with the message “Only sometimes and in small amounts” and c) it separates fruit from vegetables, noting the significant difference between the two.
The 2013 Australian plate is clearer (not least just for being pictured head on and not at a 3D angle) and the grains segment seems to have been slightly reduced in favour of the vegetables/pulses segment, but the differences are tiny.
The bottom line is that Australians are still being told to base their meals on starchy foods – the exact substances that we used to know to be fattening. They still are fattening – we were not wrong about carbs. But our unfounded fear of fat has led to advice to eat carbs instead. It is our fear of fat that has made us fat and not fat itself.