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Australia’s Health Survey – The Good and The Bad

10th June 2014


The prevalence of obesity in adults aged 18 years and over has reached a worrying 62.8%, according to the 2011-2012 Australian Health Survey. That is 1.6% more than in 2007-2008, and 6.5% more than in 1995. Similar results were found for children aged 5-17, in this age group the prevalence of overweight being 25.7% in 2011-2012, compared to 24.7% in 2007-2008.

Obesity has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of illness in Australia, and predictions are gloomy for the coming years: unless preventive measures are taken, by 2025 almost 80% of all Australian adults will be overweight. Despite these numbers, more than half of all Australians consider themselves to be in good health, and only 4% rate their health as poor.

Sedentary lifestyle or poor eating habits?


What are the main culprits behind weight gain and obesity in our country? According to the same survey, the average calorie intake is 2,300 kcal for men, and 1,770 kcal for women. These are normal values for someone who is moderately active and practices some form of physical activity on a daily basis, the recommended energy intake being, on average, 2,000 kcal per day.

Running at 6 mph for 30 minutes can burn 300 kcal, swimming can burn 180 kcal in half an hour, and cycling can burn 240 kcal in the same time interval, so it’s really not that hard to balance the calorie intake. If none of these attracts you, walking is always an option, and half an hour of brisk walk can burn 180 kcal. However, the average Australian adult spends less than 30 minutes per day exercising, only 43% of the total adult population being sufficiently active.

Young adults aged 18 to 24 years are the most active, 53% of them practicing at least 30 minute of physical exercises per day, while in people aged 75 years and over, the average time spent with physical activities drops to 20 minutes per day.

If this doesn’t sound worrying, let’s take a look at the average number of hours spent sitting. Adults spend almost 39 hours per week with sedentary activities, but those with clerical and administrative jobs are even more sedentary, with an average of 22 hours per week sitting for work. 13 hours per week are spent watching TV, and 9 hours with computer-related tasks that are not for work purposes.

The recommendation to walk 10,000 steps per day is met by less than 1 in 5 adults, and only 7% teens aged 15 to 17 years manage to reach this milestone regularly. On the other hand, children aged 5 to 11 years are more likely to reach 12,000 steps per day, percentages varying from 22% to 24% in this age group.

Australians do try to eat healthy


The lack of physical activity is a serious problem in today’s society, as even people with healthy eating habits can gain weight if their daily energy intake is higher than the total energy expenditure. A balanced diet that provides 2,000 kcal per day can lead to weight gain in a sedentary individual who spends most of his time sitting and only requires 1,700 kcal for the body’s internal processes.

The average carbs consumption for an adult Australian is 45% of the energy intake, percentages for the other nutrients being 31% for fat, 18% for protein and 2.2% for fibre. Although people who eat mostly carbohydrates can gain weight easier, especially when these carbs come from cakes, cookies and other desserts, the Survey shows that of the 45%, only 20% come from sugars, and 16% of the total sugar intake is represented by fruits.

Cakes, muffins, scones and cake-type desserts provide only 5.8% of the total sugar consumption for the average Australian adult. A closer look to the intake of discretionary foods shows that Aussies do try to limit the consumption of empty calories: most of these discretionary products are alcoholic beverages (4.8%) and cake-type desserts (3.4%), followed by cereals and fruit/nut/seed bars (2.8%), pastries (2.6%) and biscuits (2.5%).

On the other hand, 54% of adults meet the daily recommendations for fruit consumption and 68% consume dairy products regularly. Milk and dairy products represent 11% of the total energy intake, and meat, poultry and game products provide 14% of the total energy consumption. Cereals are consumed by 66% of the population, 36% of the total adults having cereals for breakfast.

75% of the Australian adults eat veggies on a daily basis, but only 6.8% of them meet the recommended intake for this group of food. As for beverages, water is the preferred choice for 87% of the population, followed by coffee (46%) and tea (38%).

These numbers suggest that it’s not necessarily the poor eating habits but the lack of physical activity that causes weight gain. For the 2011-2012 Healthy Survey, 13% of Australians aged 15 years and older reported that they were on a diet to lose weight, the percentages being slightly higher in elders (15% for men and 19% for women aged 51-70 years).

Yet, dieting alone doesn’t seem to work, as the number of overweight and obese people continues to increase. It’s therefore time to reanalyze our daily programs and to find a way to incorporate more physical activities into our busy schedules.

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