Is your diet making you chronically sick?

Nearly half of all Australians are living with a chronic health condition, and a poor diet may be to blame.

A recent study from the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare found we are living longer and also experiencing higher rates of chronic illness and age-related conditions.

The two-yearly health report card also found more than one-third of our nation’s “disease burden” is caused by preventable risk factors.

One of these factors is our expanding waistlines, with obesity affecting two in three Australian adults.

Nutrition scientist and dietitian Dr Jessica Danaher says the global pandemic has had a major impact on what Australians eat, with many people choosing more affordable and comforting foods.

“The pandemic resulted in Australian adults choosing more energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods, more foods prepared outside of the home, less fresh foods, meal skipping, and a lack of meal planning,” Dr Danaher says.

What is a chronic illness?

Chronic health conditions are diverse and complex, and are characterised by their “long lasting and ongoing effects,” University of Melbourne researcher Dr Kirsten Glenister says.

They are a leading cause of illness, disability and death in Australia.

Chronic health conditions include arthritis, asthma, diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease.

They can lead to chronic pain, mobility issues, and reduced quality of life.

Many people suffer from more than one of these conditions, known as “multimorbidity”.

These conditions can also have severe impacts on our mental health.

“People may feel sad, frustrated, resentful, guilty or fearful about their health condition,” Dr Glenister says.

“If people are concerned, they can ask their GP for advice.”

How can I avoid a chronic illness?

While chronic health conditions are caused by many different factors, including genetics, the AIHW report found “carrying excess weight is responsible for 8.4 percent of our total disease burden”.

“Too many of us are overweight, have high blood pressure or are facing chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some nutrition-related cancers,” Dr Danaher says.

“A healthy diet plays a key role in helping to prevent and control these chronic health conditions. Nutrition plays a key role in immunity, as well as our overall health and wellbeing.

“If you can access and prioritise nutritious foods during a pandemic – particularly fresh vegetables and fruits – that’s fantastic.”

Best ways to improve your diet

Now people are enjoying busy social calendars again, it can be hard to find the time for a healthy routine.

Dr Glenister recommends taking realistic small steps.

She suggests adding an extra serving of veggies into your daily diet, getting your body moving every day, or drinking more water between meals.

Australian healthy eating guidelines recommend enjoying a variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day: vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, lean proteins, and dairy (or alternatives).

A dietitian can help develop a healthy eating plan that works for you.

Written by Riley Galloway-Warren.