The food and beverages people consume (their diet) play an important role in their overall health and wellbeing. Food provides energy, nutrients and other components that, if consumed in insufficient or excess amounts, can result in ill health. A healthy diet helps to prevent and manage health risk factors such as overweight and obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, as well as associated chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer (NHMRC 2013). Diet-related chronic conditions are among the leading causes of death and disability in Australia.

 

Australian Dietary Guidelines

The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide evidence-based advice on healthy eating habits to promote overall health and wellbeing, reduce the risk of diet-related disease and protect against chronic conditions (NHMRC 2013). They recommend that Australians eat a wide variety of nutritious foods from the 5 food groups every day:

  • vegetables and legumes/beans
  • fruit
  • grain (cereal) foods
  • lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese and dairy alternatives.

Discretionary foods are foods and drinks that aren’t needed for a healthy diet and don’t fit into the 5 food groups. They are high in energy, saturated fat, added sugars, added salt and/or alcohol and low in fibre. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that their consumption should be limited.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines also provide advice on the number of serves of each food group that Australians should eat each day. Different amounts are recommended for people of different ages, sex, life stages, height and physical activity level.

This page presents the latest nationally available data to report the extent to which Australians are meeting the recommended guidelines.

See Australian Dietary Guidelines.

 

Dietary intake for 2020–21

Data for 2020–21 are based on information self-reported by the participants of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS).

Previous versions of the NHS have primarily been administered by trained ABS interviewers and were conducted face-to-face. The 2020–21 NHS was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. To maintain the safety of survey respondents and ABS Interviewers, the survey was collected via online, self-completed forms.

Non-response is usually reduced through interviewer follow-up of households who have not responded. As this was not possible during lockdown periods, there were lower response rates than previous NHS cycles, which impacted sample representativeness for some sub-populations.

Additionally, the impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns might also have had direct or indirect impacts on people’s usual behaviour over the 2020–21 period.

Due to these changes, comparisons with previous diet data over time are not recommended.

Based on self-reported data from the 2020–21 NHS, for Australian adults aged 18 years and over:

  • About 9 in 10 (91%) didn’t consume the recommended number of serves of vegetables (96% for men and 87% for women).
  • Just over 1 in 2 (55%) didn’t consume the recommended number of serves of fruit (59% for men and 52% for women).
  • About 1 in 16 (6.4%) consumed sugar sweetened drinks daily (ABS 2022a, 2022b).

 

This page includes dietary information about the Australian population from 2 surveys:

  • In the National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey 2011–12, participants were asked about all the foods and drinks they consumed in the day before they were surveyed, using a method known as 24-hour dietary recall (ABS 2013).
  • In the National Health Survey 2017–18, participants were asked about their fruit and vegetable consumption and their sugar sweetened drink consumption using short questions, such as, ‘How many serves of fruit do you usually eat each day?’ (ABS 2019b).

There are strengths of, and limitations to, the information from each survey – while the 2011–12 information is more comprehensive, the 2017–18 information is more recent. Because of this, information from both surveys is included on this page. However, because of the different methods used in the surveys, the results from the 2 surveys should not be compared with each other.

Data from both 24-hour dietary recalls and short survey questions are also subject to various biases. For example, data collected from nutrition surveys are subject to potential under-reporting of food intake, due to:

  • actual changes in diet that participants may make when they know they will be surveyed
  • misrepresentation (whether deliberate, unconscious or accidental) to make diets appear healthier or to make diets quicker to report (ABS 2014).

How common are poor diets?

The 5 food groups

In 2011–12, most Australians didn’t consume the recommended number of serves from the 5 food groups (ABS 2017; Table 1).

Table 1: Proportion of Australians who do not eat the recommended serves of the 5 food groups(a), 2011–12

Food group

Males
(Aged 2–18)

Females 
(Aged 2–18)

Men
(Aged 19+)

Women
(Aged 19+)

Vegetables and legumes/beans

99.6

99.7

96.5

94.8

Fruit(b)

53.5

54.0

70.7

77.0

Grain (cereal) foods

60.5

73.7

66.6

75.6

Lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans

92.4

98.7

79.1

87.0

Milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives

80.4

79.8

89.9

96.5

  1. The recommended number of serves can differ by age and sex and provide the total daily amount of food required each day. See the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommended serves for adults and recommended serves for children and adolescents for further details.
  2. Includes dried fruit, fresh or canned fruit and fruit juice.

Source: ABS 2017.

 

In 2017–18, most Australians didn’t consume the recommended number of serves of vegetables (ABS 2018). The proportion not meeting the recommendation was similar for boys (95%) and girls (93%) aged 2–17, and higher for men (96%) than for women (89%).

However, the proportion of Australians consuming the recommended number of serves of fruit in 2017–18 (ABS 2018) was higher than the proportion meeting the recommendation for vegetables. The proportion not meeting the recommendation was higher for boys (30%) than for girls (24%) aged 2–17, and higher for men (53%) than for women (44%).

Discretionary foods

More than one-third (35%) of total energy consumed in 2011–12 was from discretionary foods (ABS 2014). The percentage of total energy consumed from discretionary foods was:

  • similar for males (39%) and females (38%) aged 2–18
  • slightly higher for men (36%) than for women (33%) aged 19 and over.

Sugar sweetened drinks are a discretionary food. In the NHS 2017–18, the frequency and amount of soft drink, cordials, sports drinks, and caffeinated energy drinks consumed was collected. Fruit or vegetable juices, flavoured milk, coffee, tea and alcoholic beverages were excluded from the scope of the survey (ABS 2018).

In 2017–18:

  • 7.1% of children and adolescents aged 2–17 and 9.1% of those aged 18 and over consumed sugar-sweetened drinks daily.
  • Men were almost twice as likely (12%) as women (6.4%) to consume sugar-sweetened drinks daily (ABS 2018).

Trends

Before 2011–12, the last national nutrition survey of children and adults was conducted in 1995. Under-reporting of food intake is estimated to have increased from 1995 to 2011–12, so comparisons between the 2 surveys are based on serves per 10,000 kilojoules rather than reported daily intake (ABS 2017).

Between 1995 and 2011–12, the estimated number of serves per 10,000 kilojoules consumed:

  • increased for lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans
  • remained similar for fruit; grain (cereal) foods; and milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives
  • decreased for vegetables and legumes/beans, and discretionary foods (ABS 2017).

Health impact

Burden of disease refers to the quantified impact of living with and dying prematurely from a disease or injury.

Burden of disease analysis estimates the contribution of various risk factors to disease burden. In 2018, 5.4% of the total burden of disease in Australia was attributable to dietary risks (such as a diet low in wholegrains and fruit) (AIHW 2021). Dietary risks were the third leading risk factor contributing to the total burden of disease, after tobacco use and overweight and obesity.

About 50% of coronary heart disease total burden and 26% of bowel cancer burden, type 2 diabetes burden and stroke burden were attributable to dietary risks (AIHW 2021). See Burden of disease.

Variation between population groups

See Determinants of health for Indigenous Australians for information on diet among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Remoteness area

In 2017–18, after adjusting for age differences, a greater proportion of Australians aged 18 and over living in Outer regional and remote areas (53%) did not meet the daily fruit recommendation compared with those living in Major cities (48%) (Figure 1). The proportions not eating the vegetable recommendation were similar for adults living in Outer regional and remote areas (92%) and those living in Major cities (93%) (AIHW analysis of ABS 2019a).

In 2017–18, after adjusting for age differences , Australians aged 18 and over living in Outer regional and remote areas were more likely to consume sugar sweetened drinks daily (14%) than those living in Major cities (8.3%) (AIHW analysis of ABS 2019a).

Socioeconomic area

In 2017–18, after adjusting for age differences, Australians aged 18 and over living in the lowest socioeconomic areas were less likely to meet the fruit and vegetable recommendations than those living in the highest socioeconomic areas, although the differences were not large:

  • 53% of those living in the lowest socioeconomic areas didn’t meet the fruit recommendation, compared with 46% in the highest areas.
  • 94% of those living in the lowest socioeconomic areas didn’t meet the vegetable recommendation, compared with 92% in the highest areas (AIHW analysis of ABS 2019a).

Australian adults living in the lowest socioeconomic areas were 3 times as likely to drink sugar sweetened drinks daily (15%) as those living in the highest socioeconomic areas (4.4%) in 2017–18, after adjusting for age differences (AIHW analysis of ABS 2019a).

 

This chart shows that the proportion of adults who did not meet the vegetable recommendation was similar across remoteness areas and socioeconomic areas, ranging from 91% to 94% in all remoteness areas included (Major cities, Inner regional and Outer regional) and from 92% to 94% in all socioeconomic areas.

Impacts of COVID-19 on diet

Data are highlighting how public health measures put in place during the early stages of COVID-19 (for example, quarantine, the closure of non-essential services and restrictions on venue capacity) have impacted Australians’ dietary habits.

Opportunity-induced eating and coping with negative emotions (such as stress) might also have an impact on unhealthy snacking behaviour (Verhoeven et al. 2015).

Data from the ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey showed that:

  • In June 2020 (during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia), nearly 3 in 10 females (28%) and around 1 in 6 males (16%) reported eating more snack foods (for example, chips, lollies, biscuits) than what was usual prior to the implementation of public health measures in March 2020.
  • In contrast, 2 in 10 (20%) people aged 18–64 reported that they reduced their consumption of soft drinks, cordials and energy drinks during the same time period.
  • In April 2020, about 1 in 3 people (36%) reported decreased consumption of takeaway or delivered meals compared with before the pandemic.
  • About 4 in 10 people (38%) reported increases in cooking or baking (of those who usually cook or bake) (ABS 2020a, 2020b).

For more information on how the pandemic has affected the population's health in the context of longer term trends, see ‘Chapter 2 Changes in the health of Australians during the COVID-19 period’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.  

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on diet, see:

Visit Food & nutrition for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2013) Australian Health Survey: users’ guide, 2011–13, ABS website, accessed 7 January 2022.

ABS (2014) Australian Health Survey: nutrition first resultsfoods and nutrients, 2011–12, ABS website, accessed 7 January 2022.

ABS (2017) Australian Health Survey: consumption of food groups from the Australian Dietary Guidelines, 2011–12, ABS website, accessed 7 January 2022.

ABS (2018) National Health Survey: first results, 2017–18, ABS website, accessed 7 January 2022.

ABS (2019a) Microdata: National Health Survey, 2017–18, AIHW analysis of detailed microdata, accessed 12 February 2019.

ABS (2019b) National Health Survey: users’ guide, 2017–18, ABS website, accessed 7 January 2022.

ABS (2020a) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, 29 Apr–4 May 2020, ABS website, accessed 20 January 2022.

ABS (2020b) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, 24–29 June 2020, ABS website, accessed 20 January 2022.

ABS (2022a) Table 1: Summary health characteristics, by age and sex [data set], Physical activity, ABS website, accessed 21 March 2022.

ABS (2022b) Table 5: Health risk factors by population characteristics, 18 years and over [data set], Physical activity, ABS website, accessed 21 March 2022.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) (2021) Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018: Interactive data on risk factor burden, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 7 January 2022.

NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines, NHMRC, accessed 7 January 2022.

Verhoeven AA, Adriaanse MA, de Vet E, Fennis BM and de Ridder DT (2015) ‘It’s my party and I eat if I want to: Reasons for unhealthy snacking’, Appetite, 84:20–27, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.013.