With more than two in three Australian adults and one in four children above a healthy weight*, researchers say food availability, affordability and marketing can contribute to bad choices.
Excess weight and unhealthy diets are among the top three contributors to Australia’s total disease burden. They come just after tobacco, which is the leading contributor according to the *Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
In a paper published today in Public Health Research & Practice, a peer-reviewed journal of the Sax Institute, lead author Dr Alex Chung from Monash University’s Health and Social Care Unit argues that commercial factors play a major role.
“Commercial factors that influence food choices in Australia include food availability, affordability and marketing,” Dr Chung said.
“Children in particular are exposed to unhealthy food marketing every day - on television, via digital media, on billboards and public transport infrastructure, in stores and on product packaging.
“This marketing influences children’s attitudes and preferences around food and leads to increased consumption of marketed foods, and we know the majority of food marketing out there is for unhealthy food and drinks.”
The paper’s authors are concerned about the public implications of the ready availability of ultra processed food and the emphasis on its marketing.
“In terms of food choices, the power currently sits with the processed food industry, whose practices shape the food environment where unhealthy food and beverages are heavily promoted. This makes it difficult for individuals to make healthy choices,” Dr Chung said.
Adds co-author Lucy Westerman from VicHealth, “Marketing is just one of the commercial practices of producer and advertising industries, but it is also a very effective one, leveraging diverse techniques in the digital world, social and traditional media, and public spaces to influence behaviour.
“Poor regulation of advertising activity means people, including children, are bombarded by advertising of unhealthy food and drink, far more than healthy products. And some of that marketing is dark – that is we can’t always see what our children are seeing.
“Many of these companies use the same tactics in countries around the world, so addressing these commercial determinants of unhealthy diets requires us to collaborate with others who are working to protect children’s health everywhere."
Equity is also an issue. Affordability of healthy food is worse in low income areas, and maintaining healthy eating patterns is becoming increasingly difficult for disadvantaged communities.
“Research shows that healthy diets would cost 25-26% of the disposable income for low-income households and 30-31% for families living on the poverty line,” Dr Chung explained.
“Healthy diets are unaffordable, particularly for families on low incomes, and those living in regional and remote areas of Australia.
“In addition, unhealthy food marketing targets low socioeconomic neighbourhoods. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy food marketing, exacerbating inequalities in health.”
The federal government has indicated intent to act. Australia’s National Obesity Strategy 2022-2032 signals the need to change the systems, environments and commercial determinants that affect Australians’ opportunities to live active and healthy lives.
Dr Chung and her co-authors are calling for urgent action on this issue, and their paper outlines a number of ways that governments can reduce the harmful impact of commercial interests on people’s diets.
“We need to ensure we hold the government to account, to make sure that the actions detailed in the National Obesity Strategy are prioritised and implemented,” Dr Chung said.
“Public policy measures are needed to address the environmental drivers to improve health and reduce the growing burden of obesity.
“Examples of necessary policies include protecting children from unhealthy food marketing, so they can develop healthy food habits free from commercial influence that aims to tell them what to eat and what to ask their parents to buy.”
In terms of addressing the equity issue, Dr Chung said the solutions were twofold.
“This requires food and social policies which reduce the price of healthy foods, both in absolute terms and relative to unhealthy foods, as well as increasing income for families experiencing poverty,” she said.
The International Congress on Obesity (ICO), in Melbourne from 18-22 October, is an opportunity for experts in obesity prevention to share research and advance understanding of what needs to be done to build equitable access to healthy food, both in Australia and worldwide.