Australians eat poorly, are overweight and unfit: but it’s not all bad news

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Australians eat poorly, are overweight and unfit: but it’s not all bad news

Posted 1/11/2012 by Amanda Biggs

The Australian Health Survey, a regular survey of Australia's health, shows that most Australian adults have a poor diet, are either overweight or obese and don’t get enough exercise. These unhealthy habits put us at greater risk of a range of adverse health outcomes including the development of serious diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

The first results, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on 29 October 2012, cover health status, health risk factors and long term health conditions. Results to be released later will cover health service use, more detailed information on dietary intake, physical activity and sedentary behaviour, biomedical health measures, and representative results for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

According to this first release, Australian adults are failing to consume adequate levels of fruit and vegetables. Some 94.4 per cent of us do not meet the national recommended intake of 2 serves of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables a day. Although nearly half meet the recommended intake of fruit, just 8.3 per cent eat sufficient vegetables.

Meanwhile we are more likely to be overweight and obese than a healthy weight, with 63.4 per cent of all adults categorised as being either overweight or obese and just 35.4 per cent sitting in the normal range of Body Mass Index (BMI). Nor are we getting sufficient exercise. Just under a third of Australian adults report they undertook moderate to high levels of exercise in the previous week, with more than two thirds reporting either low levels or no exercise.

On the upside, just 16.3 per cent of adults reported being a daily smoker, although the highest rate of smoking (20.4 per cent) was reported among 25–34 year olds. Meanwhile, a majority (55.6 per cent) consider themselves to be in good or excellent health, while just 4 per cent report poor health.

The following is a summary of the main results:

Intake of fruit and vegetables

  • 48.3 per cent of all adults reported they consumed at least 2 serves of fruit a day (the recommended level). More women than men met the recommended consumption level, 52.7 per cent of women compared to 43.8 per cent of men 
  • 8.3 per cent of all adults reported they consumed at least 5 serves of vegetables a day (the recommended level). Overall, equal proportions of women and men met the recommended consumption level
  • Overall, 94.4 per cent of adults do not meet the national recommendations of intake for fruit and vegetable consumption
Body mass index (BMI), overweight and obesity
  • 35.2 per cent of all adults were categorised as being within the normal BMI range
  • 63.4 per cent of all adults were categorised as being either overweight or obese. More men than women were categorised as overweight or obese, 70.3 per cent of men compared with 56.2 per cent of women
  • Lowest rate of overweight or obesity were in the youngest age range (18-24)
  • Highest rate of normal BMI were also in the youngest age range (18-24)
  • Highest rate of overweight or obese (80.6 per cent) was among men aged 45-54 
Exercise and physical activity
  • 32.4 per cent of adults reported moderate or high levels of physical activity or exercise 
  • 67.5 per cent of all adults reported low or no (sedentary) exercise or physical activity in the previous week, with more women than men having low or no exercise levels, 72.6 per cent of women, compared to 62.4 per cent of men
  • The age group with the highest proportion of sedentary behaviour were those aged 75 and over (56.9 per cent), and the age group with the lowest proportion of sedentary behaviour were those aged 18-24 (29.4 per cent) 
  • 16.3 per cent reported being a daily smoker, with more men (18.2 per cent) than women (14.4 per cent) smoking on a daily basis
  • Lowest rates of smoking were among those aged 55-64 (14.1 per cent) and the highest rate was among those aged 25-34 (20.4 per cent) 
Drinking alcohol
  • 19.2 per cent of all adults exceed the recommended guideline of no more than 2 standard drinks a day
In terms of trends over time, rates of overweight or obesity continue to climb, but our level of sedentary activity has fallen slightly since 2007–08. The proportion who report smoking has been steadily falling while drinking more than is good for us has also declined. Trend data on fruit and vegetable consumption was not reported in these first results.
These first results are based on self-report of risk factors, where an element of personal bias can be present. Later results will provide more detailed information and for the first time biomedical measures will be included, which should add a more objective dimension.
These results are in line with other surveys, as summarised in this recent report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Using data from a range of surveys it also reported an increased prevalence of risk factors, which are linked to preventable diseases such as type 2 diabetes and kidney disease, as noted in this previous Flagpost
Overall the news from this survey presents a mixed, but still worrying picture. While some risk factors such as smoking have fallen, other risk factors continue to rise or have fallen only marginally. It tells us we need to eat more fruit and vegetables, particularly the latter, exercise more and continue to heed messages about giving up smoking and lowering our alcohol consumption.

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