What New Zealanders eat; how (un)healthy are we?

You probably know that the government tracks what we eat. That’s not a surprise. All governments track what their citizens eat in order to inform food regulation, nutrition guidelines, social and health policies and to fund research.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) runs Nutrition Surveys; the last Adult Nutrition Survey was conducted in 2008/09 where 4,721 adult New Zealanders (aged 15 and over) provided detailed information which formed the basis of the understanding of the nutritional (and health) profile of our country. This was the fourth population-based nutrition survey (previous were 1977, 1989 and 2002, so we are probably another 5 years away for the next one). There were smaller focused surveys done in intervening years. These surveys are hugely expensive to run well, the data gathering (screening of potential respondents, then selection and questionnaires, interviews, blood and urine sampling) takes a year, and the analysis can take a further year.

MOH and Plant and Food Research maintains and updates the New Zealand Food Composition Database, which samples 2,600 of the most common food products, analyses and validates them for 76 different nutrients. The sampling methodology composites products purchased from different geographical locations, batches and brands. This information is then used to provide the nutrient levels for the Nutrition Survey.

What did the survey tell us?

Kiwis eat a lot of bread. Bread provides 11% of our energy intake, 11% of our protein and 6% of our fat. We also tend to eat whole grain bread (63.3% of the bread eating population). This is why when the government legislated for voluntary addition of folic acid into our diet; they chose to do it through bread.

Kiwis drink a lot of milk. Nearly 92% of us drink milk, 43.3% drink standard or whole milk, and 48.4% drink trim milk.

Kiwis love our meat. 75.5% eat red meat every week, and 80.6% eat chicken every week, but only 41.6% eat fish on a regular basis. The fish-and-chips takeaways would be pleased; 16.7% eat battered or fried fish at least once a week.

The New Zealanders with the best dietary habits were the 51 year olds and above. It’s not surprising; when your body starts reminding you of its age and you can start seeing the precipice of your life, people all of a sudden start eating better. In this case, better means more vegetables and fruit, less meat and fats.

We are eating better since 1997, the last comparable National Health Survey. We eat less calories and less fat, plus more of us are eating 2 or more servings of vegetables a day. But, before we high-five each other, the bad news is that we are actually getting fatter. Which means that we are doing less physical activity.

While none of these are surprising, it definitely shows that health messages are not getting through. New ways to educate the public is needed; the government is looking into front of pack labelling (e.g. traffic light system). Information here from Ministry for Primary Industries and Sanitarium.

I personally think that health messages are too complicated. I’m a fan of Michael Pollan’s message:

Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants.

image courtesy of vegetables.co.nz

We should probably add; Move around, just a little bit more. Find something fun that gets you on your feet.

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