Table of Contents


Volume 31, Issue 1, March 2020


Volume 31, Issue 1, March 2020


Penny Wilson, PhD candidate and educational consultant

We all must eat to live but what we eat may affect how well we live and for how long. The Australian Dietary Guidelines are written to help us all choose good, nourishing foods that keep us healthy. They also help us navigate the persuasive advertising promoting fast, processed foods filled with salt, fat and sugar that taste good right now but can leave us feeling slightly icky afterwards.

Figure 1: Legumes have been enjoyed by multiple cultures for thousands of years.

Although there are five guidelines in all, the second and third are about what we eat: Guideline 2 talks of all the foods you should eat, how much and how often. The emphasis here is on whole foods, minimally processed, foods that taste great and are good for you. Guideline 3 speaks of those foods that you should eat only sometimes and in small amounts.

The remaining three guidelines encourage regular exercise and maintaining enough calories to keep you performing well (Guideline 1), support and encourage Mums to breastfeed their bubs (Guideline 4), and advise us on careful storage of food to ensure it stays fresh (Guideline 5).

This article explains the Australian Dietary Guidelines, particularly a few items from Guidelines 2 and 3. I explain where the guidelines came from and how diet became a topic for study, and why sometimes they seem to lag behind research.

How did the interest in diet start?

Back in the late 1800s, food for the working classes in Britain was comprised of porridge, potatoes, bread, a little bit of cheese and perhaps some fatty bacon. The poorer you were, the less likely you were to eat any meat at all. The poor were smaller, less healthy and died younger than the rest of the population. Research into diets for prisoners, a captive study group, helped scientists establish what a minimal diet might be and how long people could stay alive without enough food; providing knowledge about the energy contained in food and how our bodies use food for energy. It’s all a bit gruesome and uncaring.

Although food has been a topic for research for centuries, most of what we know about nutrition has been discovered in the last 100 years or so. The discovery of vitamins in the first half of the 20th century helped prevent common diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies – for instance goitre, caused by lack of iodine. Imagine a chemist shop now without shelves of vitamins and dietary supplements.

Figure 2: Goitre, swelling of the thyroid gland at the base of the neck, is caused by iodine deficiency.

In the time between WW1 and WW2 in Britain, food was in short supply and the overall health of the population was poor. The threat of the second world war and the need for healthy fighting men, able to survive the deprivations of war, prompted work on what the minimum dietary recommendations would be to produce fit young men. The question was, how much food, of what variety and with what properties will make men fit to win a war? The research focussed on men because women weren’t part of the fighting forces back then. So, the need for dietary guidelines was the product of war preparation, but the whole population benefited.

During the 1950s to 1970s fat and sugar debates were triggered by the increased industrialisation of food.Sugar and fat are cheap and can be added to all manner of foods to enhance flavour and profits. By the 1970s, low-fat diets were the recommendation, a position that remains today despite evidence that contradicts that overall advice. What is true is that the increasing industrialisation of food is having an impact on our health, increasing the chances of an overweight, sick population with a shorter life expectancy.

Figure 3: With increasing industrialisation of food it has become more important to understand which foods are healthy.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines?

Australia’s first dietary guidelines were published in 1979 and are updated regularly, with the most recent version published in 2013. They are designed to help all Australians eat better and live longer, healthier lives.

One of the most important benefits the dietary guidelines provide is the information to question the value and benefit of manufactured and processed foods – including the promotion and advertising of foods and meals that come at you from the television, online media, magazines and billboards. You can also confidently question those foods in the supermarket that are labelled as healthy but contain large amounts of fats, sugars, salt and lots of numbers instead of names. In effect, you have more knowledge to control the positive and negative values of foods you put into your body.

The guidelines are written to help not just you, but all of the community. They encompass principles of ecological sustainability, equity, and good nutrition. What is important it that eating a good diet helps maintain a healthy weight and prevent life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a range of cancers. Your health is important for you, for how you live your life. But your health, or your ill-health can also become a matter for the community when you require constant health care, hospital treatment and expensive medications. We all pay for the health care of all Australians through our tax system, so keeping fit and healthy saves money for the whole of community. Staying well also means that you can maintain your relationships with friends and family, continue working or studying and be involved in social activities. Eating to the guidelines can help you stay well.

Figure 4: Following the Australian Dietary Guidelines can help you stay well.

Guideline 2

Do you eat the recommended amount and variety of fruit and veggies, grains and legumes? The guidelines recommend five serves of veggies and two serves of fruit daily. This advice seems to be a challenge for many people. But the evidence says that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is great for your health and wellbeing, will make you feel full on fewer calories and will help maintain your weight. Fruit and veggies taste great, too. 

Figure 5: There is an infinite variety of ways that vegetables can be cooked in dishes that are tasty and good for you.

The guidelines also say that you should eat a variety of fruit and veggies with lots of different colours and textures. Fruit and veggies and legumes are a terrific way to keep your gut healthy, your immune system strong and to help prevent different cancers. We are only just beginning to understand how the bright colours of fruit and veggies can benefit us in many ways, but lots of colours are definitely good for you.

“But I hate broccoli and spinach, in fact, I hate all vegetables.”

Do you really or is it just a story? As a challenge, try them again with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt (which is okay to add for flavour if you eat lots of plant foods full of potassium). Or try them not as a green on the side but as a whole meal. Find a vegetarian recipe or a recipe for an Indian, Asian or Moroccan style dish with broccoli or spinach as the centrepiece, or a dish full of tomatoes, eggplant and chickpeas (there are loads of recipes on the Internet). Have a go with your family or with a friend.

Guideline 3

What about discretionary foods? The guidelines list three major harmful influences on our health: excess salt, sugar and fat.

Diets high in salt (of which 80% comes from processed foods) can cause your blood pressure to rise, with serious health implications. The effect of high salt on blood pressure can impact young people as well as older folk. Sugars creep into many processed foods without you really noticing. Sugars help your weight to creep up, are bad for your teeth and gums, and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Cutting down on soft drinks will have huge impact on the sugars you consume. Try this challenge: drink water, tea, coffee (unsweetened) rather than soft drinks for three weeks. Your desire for sugar will reduce. And you will save a lot of money.

The advice on fat is to eat a low-fat diet but specifically to keep saturated fats to a minimum. Fast foods and processed foods are often high in fats, some of which are cheap, of variable quality and with uncertain impacts on your health. If you can, prepare your own food so that you can control the amount and the type of fat you use – the best one is extra virgin olive oil, which research on the Mediterranean diet shows can be used liberally for cooking and salads.

The information about saturated fat is being disputed by some scientists, particularly in full cream milk, which research has been unable to link with poor health outcomes.

Whatever the dispute over some of the harms that saturated fats might or might not cause, the biggest harms come from today’s industrialised fried fast foods, with their use of hidden ingredients, cheap fats, unknowable additives and high use of sugar and salt.

Figure 6: Although there is scientific confusion over some food ingredients, the choice can be really quite simple – avoid highly processed foods.

Why does advice change over time?

The guidelines are based upon scientific evidence, that is, research into the values or harms of different components of foods, such as saturated fats, for example. But there is often a time lag between new ideas related to foods and interpreting the findings into new guidelines. This is the reason why. 

Research is constantly taking place into how our bodies work – there is yet much to learn. As we make discoveries such as the difference between good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, we also discover how components of foods affect the functioning of our bodies. Once a new discovery is made, experiments are set up to make sure that what scientists are seeing is real and not a misinterpretation of data. Experiments are repeated and finally, findings are written up and published in journals for other scientists to read and to challenge. Eventually, once verified, the discovery is revealed to the public. It is at this point that those people responsible for developing the dietary guidelines can think about how the research might influence advice for the public.

In effect, the fact that the guidelines change is good news – they adapt to changes in the science. What was considered not so good for us in the past becomes a beneficial food again, and vice versa. Have a look at the case of eggs and butter in our diet.

Through much of the 1900s eggs were considered a great source of protein; cheap and perfectly packaged in their own shells, they were convenient and easy to use. By the 1970s, research into cholesterol-rich foods found that too much cholesterol in our diets was bad for us. In Australia, this was backed up by an alarming statistic. Between 1950 and 1962, in men between the ages of 35-39, death from coronary heart disease had increased by 78%. Eggs weren’t viewed as the only culprits. The advice from the Australian Medical Association was to eat less red meat, less fried food, less butter, and fewer eggs.

Figure 7: Eggs used to be demonised until research showed they don’t cause bad cholesterol.

The advice is a little different now due to new understandings of how our bodies process foods. Bad cholesterol doesn’t come from eating cholesterol in eggs, for instance, but from eating excess carbohydrates. Once again, red meat and eggs are good foods and recommended, in moderation, as part of a healthy diet that provides protein and other nutrients for a healthy body. However, increasing research suggests red meat has other harmful impacts on health, for instance bowel cancer, so – as with all the food groups – it’s important to eat a variety of protein sources.

Margarine continues to be supported over butter, according to the guidelines. But is margarine, a highly manufactured product, really better than butter? You may have heard about recent research into industrially made trans fats, a type of fat that has become popular with food manufacturers. This type of fat can stop food from going rancid when kept at room temperature, therefore a valuable ingredient for foods that are displayed on supermarket shelves, foods such as biscuits, baked goods and even ice cream. These fats have been shown to increase your levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) while decreasing your good cholesterol (HDL) and may change the way your cells function. These trans fats also appear in margarines.

Figure 8: Although there have been long-standing recommendations to eat a low-fat diet, research shows it’s important to eat healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil.

The Heart Foundation argues that pressure from lobby groups in Australia has meant that margarine sold here has around 0.2 g of trans fats per 100 g while butter contains around 4 g per 100 g. However, the naturally produced trans fats in butter are the result of bacterial processes that happen in the cow’s forestomach, and not as harmful as industrially produced trans fats.Given these facts, butter may be better than margarine. However, as butter’s saturated fats are perceived as more harmful than margarine’s predominantly unsaturated fat, the Australian Dietary Guidelines and the Heart Foundation continue to support margarine over butter.

These examples illustrate a few points: the evolving nature of research; the time lag between new ideas regarding diet and the time it takes to incorporate changes into the guidelines; the impact different experts have on both the dietary advice we receive; and the responsiveness of those responsible for forming the dietary guidelines to changes in scientific findings.


The guidelines are important principles to help give you information, eat a balanced and healthy diet, and keep you well.

Ultimately, though, as American food activist and author Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That seems like great advice for you, your family, the community and the planet. Bon appétit!

Student activities

1. What are the five key food groups in Guideline 2?

2. Create your own poster that visually shows as many different foods from each group as you can.

3. Why is it important to eat fruit and vegetables with a variety of colours?

4. Explain Guideline 3 and why it is important.

5. What did you eat last week and how did it align with the Australian Dietary Guidelines?

It’s really quite difficult to remember exactly what you ate yesterday, let alone last week. Keep a diary for a week and record everything you eat and drink. You might be surprised or even shocked at quantities and types of foods that you eat. At the end of the week, check your diet against the Australian Dietary Guidelines 2 and 3, and perhaps plan eating changes for your good health right now and into the future.

6. How might you make a small change to your diet?

Work in small teams. Have a look at the parts of your diets that you would like to change. Come up with some ideas for a new eating regime, checking with each other for support, advice and ideas.

7. Kerry’s Mum and Dad are always working, there’s no time left for shopping and cooking.

How can they change what they eat?

Many Australians are travelling further to work each day, working longer hours, and sometimes, living further away from fresh food shops. Mum and Dad are tired when they get home and don’t want to think about spending time making dinner. Trying to eat healthy meals in these circumstances when the take-away is calling is difficult. How can Kerry become involved in making meals?

8. There are foods that are good for us that do keep well in the pantry. Pasta, rice, grains can sit in the cupboard until needed. Tinned beans and  tomatoes also keep in the cupboard and frozen green veggies are packed full of lots of the beneficial goodness of fresh. Do some research on ideas can you give Kerry to help change the diet at home when shopping isn’t a priority.

9. What do you plan to eat next?

Have a go at planning a variety of meals. Try out some new foods, ingredients, sauces. Search the Internet for ideas and inspiration, watch YouTube clips to get instructions, have a cooking night with family or friends. Have fun and eat well!


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Bergman, Karolin, Christine Persson-Osowski, Karin Eli, Elin Lövestam, Helena Elmståhl, and Paulina Nowicka.2018. “Stakeholder Responses to Governmental Dietary Guidelines: Challenging the Status Quo, or Reinforcing It?” British Food Journal 120(3):613–24.

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Heart Foundation.2018.“Butter vs Margarine; Which Is Better for Your Heart?” Heart Foundation.Retrieved February 27, 2020 (

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National Health and Medical Research Council. 2013. Eat for Health: Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra, Australia.

Pollan, Michael.2008. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.London: Penguin Books.

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Saxelby, Catherine.2018. “13 Trans Fat Foods to Remove from Your Diet!” Foodwatch.Retrieved February 27, 2020 ( item/13-trans-fat-foods-to-remove-from-your-diet.html).

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Tapsell, Linda C., Elizabeth P.Neale, Ambika Satija, and Frank B.Hu.2016. “Foods, Nutrients, and Dietary Patterns: Interconnections and Implications for Dietary Guidelines.” Advances in Nutrition 7(3):445–54.