Why unhealthy eating is the new smoking

Many of us are making poor food choices – and it’s costing us our health, wellbeing and sometimes our lives.

Unhealthy eating is the new smoking, a recent Australian report has confirmed.

Our poor diets are now contributing a greater cost to Australia’s health system than tobacco – that’s $4.3 billion compared to $3.3 billion.

And the results of our less-than-ideal diets can be seen in our waistlines.

Two out of three Australian adults are overweight, says Dietitians Australia chief executive Robert Hunt.

“One quarter of our children and 67 per cent of Australian adults are overweight or obese,” Robert says.

“Whether directly or indirectly, every single one of us is impacted by issues from our nation’s diet.

“Not everyone smokes but everyone eats, so we can’t afford to keep pushing this issue aside.”

Unhealthy eating is a global issue

It’s not only Australians who are struggling with poor eating.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report followed a study published in The Lancet in 2019 revealing 11 million deaths globally each year are linked to an unhealthy diet.

“(A) suboptimal diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risks globally, including tobacco smoking, highlighting the urgent need for improving human diet across nations,” the study says.

Why are we making unhealthy food choices?

Robert points out heavily marketed energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods are a factor.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health naturopath Sandra Villella adds people are time poor “and cut corners”.

“Some of it’s the convenience factor,” Sandra says.

“It’s so easy for people to do drive through and get takeaway after a busy day at work.”

The growing popularity of mobile apps and online-ordering technology is also driving a heavy reliance on home deliveries from services such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo.

A Cancer Council LiveLighter survey has found 62 per cent of us choose less healthy options when ordering food online compared to what we would prepare and cook at home.

The problem with unhealthy eating

Turns out the saying “you are what you eat” is true.

An unhealthy diet is one of the major risk factors for a range of chronic diseases, dietitian Rebecca Flavel explains.

“That includes cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, diabetes and other conditions linked to obesity,” Rebecca says.

Studies have also found that eating poorly can decrease your body’s ability to fight off illness, lead to lower-quality sleep, affect your mood and increase your risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

Easy tips for better eating

A healthy diet is not as hard as you might think.

But Sandra sounds this note of caution.

“People need to be careful of fad diets and what they see on social media,” she says.

“Coconut oil, for example, was trending for a long time as a health food when really the evidence for the best oil is on extra virgin olive oil.”

Here are the naturopath’s top tips for a healthy diet:

1. Eat food as close to its natural state as possible

“Think vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, whole grains and legumes and some good sources of protein — fish, eggs and also some dairy,” Sandra says.

“The Mediterranean diet has been linked to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more.”

2. Keep it colourful

“Always include multi-coloured vegetables where you can,” Sandra says.

“And it doesn’t have to be fancy. Think munching on a carrot and using broccoli and beetroot in salads.”

3. Make breakfast count

“Time-restricted eating means a lot of people are skipping breakfast but if it is part of your day, make it count,” Sandra says.

“Don’t waste it on a piece of toast with vegemite with empty calories.

“Choose whole grains, or yoghurt and fresh fruit, or an omelette with onions, mushrooms and spinach.

“Like any good investment, you need to put in time and energy for a good return.

“Healthy eating takes time and it is ongoing and every day, but it is your health and it’s worth it.”

Sandra Villella’s healthy eating recipes are featured on the Jean Hailes website.

Written by Liz McGrath.