The food and beverages people consume (our 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 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 and 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.

See Australian Dietary Guidelines.

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(b) (per cent), 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(a)

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. Includes dried fruit, fresh or canned fruit and fruit juice.
  2. 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.

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. They include soft drink, cordials, sports drinks, and caffeinated energy drinks. 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.

Health impact

Burden of disease analysis estimates the contribution of various risk factors to disease burden. In 2015, 7.3% of the burden of disease was attributable to dietary risks (such as a diet low in wholegrains and fruit) (AIHW 2019a). Dietary risks were the third leading risk factor contributing to the burden of disease, after tobacco use and overweight and obesity.

More than 40% of cardiovascular disease burden and 34% of endocrine disease burden was attributable to dietary risks. See Burden of disease.

Variation between population groups

See Health risk factors among Indigenous Australians for information on diet among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Remoteness area

In 2017–18, after adjusting for age, Australians aged 18 and over living in Outer regional and remote areas (53%) were less likely to meet the fruit recommendation than 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 2019b).

In 2017–18, after adjusting for age, 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%) (ABS 2019a).

See Rural and remote health.

Socioeconomic area

In 2017–18, after adjusting for age, 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
  • 94% of those living in the lowest socioeconomic areas didn’t meet the vegetable recommendation, compared with 92% in the highest (AIHW 2019b).

Australian adults living in the lowest socioeconomic areas were 3 times as likely to drink sugar-sweetened drinks daily (15%) than those living in the highest socioeconomic areas (4.4%) in 2017–18, after adjusting for age (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.

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 cat. no. 4363.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2014. Australian Health Survey: nutrition first results—foods and nutrients, 2011–12. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.007. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2017. Australian Health Survey: consumption of food groups from the Australian Dietary Guidelines, 2011–12. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.012. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018. National Health Survey: first results, 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019a. Microdata: National Health Survey, 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4324.0.55.001. Findings based on Detailed Microdata analysis. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019b. National Health Survey: users’ guide, 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4363.0. Canberra: ABS.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019a. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2015. Cat. no. BOD 22. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019b. Poor diet. Cat. no. PHE 249. Canberra: AIHW.

NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) 2013. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: NHMRC.