In a report whose recommendations are unlikely to gain traction until after the federal election, and perhaps only then if the Coalition fails to regain office, the Dietitians Association of Australia is leading a push to thoroughly update the 26-year-old National Nutrition Policy.

Alarmed by the impacts of poor diet on preventable chronic conditions the DAA has launched the Nourish Not Neglect report, an advocacy document aimed at addressing Australia’s $70 billion p.a. bill for chronic illness.

Despite this unaffordable situation, the National Nutrition Policy has not been updated in more than a quarter-century, during which time Australia has slipped from being a “global leader” in dietary influenced health practices.

Striking an alarmist note, the DDA’s chief executive Robert Hunt – no relation to the right-aligned Federal Health Minister with the same surname – said, “There is no point spending money on portfolios to service the population, because the reality is, if we continue without a collaborative, contemporary nutrition framework, we won’t have a population.”  

Or at least a healthy and sustainable one.

Attending the report’s February 12th launch at Parliament House were the Heart Foundation, Nutrition Australia, Public Health Association, Diabetes Australia, Carers Australia, Mental Health Australia, National Rural Health Alliance, NDIS, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, CSIRO and the Department of Health. More than 6,900 dietitians across Australia have contacted local MPs urging them to petition for a new National Nutrition Policy.

The ‘current’ policy, if such can be said of a 1992 document yet to be revised, was followed by a government-commissioned Scoping Study in 2013, made public three years later only after a Freedom of Information request.

The policy was blighted from the start, a victim of food politics, characterised by claims of nanny state-ism and intense lobbying by the food industry. Battlegrounds included junk food advertising in children’s television time, ‘traffic light’ food labelling, sugar taxes, and doubtful ‘ticks’ of approval by certain health organisations.

The issue may be a gift that keeps on giving for investigators at Choice magazine and ABC’s The Checkout, but there’s been little value to consumers, which is all of us: within five years it is predicted that 83 per cent of men and 75 per cent of women will be overweight or obese.

“To address Australia’s growing health and societal issues, the Australian Government needs to develop, fund and implement a new National Nutrition Policy,” the DAA report urges.

“Not only will this reduce the incidence and prevalence of diet-related chronic disease risk factors and conditions among Australians, but it will also improve nutrition for the benefit of Australia’s health, wellbeing, sustainability and prosperity.

A new National Nutrition Policy would address the rising prevalence and healthcare costs of diet-related chronic disease, and help improve food and nutrition security, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, the nutritional needs of vulnerable Australians, sustainability, social equity and productivity.

“It would take into account key food supply influences, such as agriculture, environment and trade. A contemporary policy would integrate key current policy tools and programs including: the Australian Dietary Guidelines (due for review), Nutrient Reference Values (under ongoing review), food labelling initiatives (including the Health Star Rating system), relevant taxes and laws and monitoring and surveillance systems.”

The DAA is calling for the government - presumably the next one - to rejuvenate the National Nutrition Policy through development, implementation and evaluation strategies.

These include appointing an expert oversight group and external consultants to develop the National Nutrition Policy, the release of the draft for public consultation, funding a ten-year implementation, committing to a quality food and nutrition monitoring and surveillance system, and reporting key targets to WHO and the FAO.

“Updating the National Nutrition Policy is imperative to ensure a co-ordinated and collaborative approach is undertaken to improve food and nutrition-related health and reduce the adverse outcomes due to poor diet in Australia,” it says.

“Specifically, a new National Nutrition Policy would create positive change by co-ordinating both government and non-government strategies towards reducing the burden of diet-related disease, providing structures to systematically reduce diet-related health inequalities, contributing to increased prosperity, securing an environmentally sustainable food and nutrition system [and] reflecting international and national best-practice activities, to keep Australia’s nutrition approach current on the world stage.”

These are desirable goals that should be achievable if the political will and budgetary allocations are brought to bear.

Oz Health Snapshot