Friday, March 1, 2013

The new Australian Dietary Guidelines

Have you seen them?

(Did you know what the old ones said?)

Released a week ago, the new Australian Dietary Guidelines replace those published in 2003, which in turn built on recommendations that had been around since 1998. Details of how the guidelines were developed are summarised on the Australian government's Eat for Health website, which also includes downloadable copies of the guidelines (in full and summarised form) themselves.

The new 2013 guidelines in plate form.

There are five main recommendations in the new guidelines, of which three relate to food choices (the others are to promote breastfeeding, and to store and prepare food hygienically and safely). These three are:

1. Achieve and maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and choose amounts of nutritious food and drinks to meet your energy needs:
  • Children and adolescents should eat sufficient nutritious foods to grow and develop normally. They should be physically active every day and their growth should be checked regularly.
  • Older people should eat nutritious foods and keep physically active to help maintain muscle strength and a healthy weight.

2. Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the following five groups each day, and drink plenty of water:
  • Plenty of vegetables, including different types and colours, and legumes/beans.
  • Fruit.
  • Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, such as breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley.
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans.
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat (reduced fat milks are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years).

3. Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol:
  • Limit intake of foods high in saturated fat (e.g., biscuits, cakes, pastries, pies, processed meats, commercial burgers, pizza, fried foods, potato chips, crisps).
  • Replace high fat foods which contain predominantly saturated fats (e.g., butter, cream, cooking margarine, coconut and palm oil) with foods which contain predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (e.g., oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado).
  • Low fat diets are not suitable for children under the age of 2 years.
  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added salt; read labels to choose lower sodium options among similar foods; and do not add salt to foods in cooking or at the table.
  • Limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionery  sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, limit intake. For women who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.

Complementing these broad guidelines are lots of specifics, including examples of how to achieve them, calculators and quizzes to determine where you fall in different areas, and recommended serving sizes and serve per day quotas.

As with the 2003 guidelines, it is recommended that adults eat at least 5 serves of vegetables, 2 serves of fruit, around 6 serves of grains, 1-3 serves protein equivalents, and 2 1/2 serves of dairy equivalents. 'Discretionary choices', or 'sometimes foods', are suggested at a range of 0-3 serves per day.

The old 2003 guidelines in plate form.
Source: National Health & Medical Research Council.

So what are the changes from 2003 to 2013? Here are the main ones I have found.

The serving size of grain ('carbohydrate') products has been halved. Thus, whilst the recommended number of serves remains approximately the same (currently 6), the 2013 guide halves the recommended intake overall. One serve is now defined as 1 piece of bread instead of 2 pieces; 1/2 cup of rice instead of 1 cup; 1/2 cup porridge instead of 1 cup; and 2/3 cup flaked breakfast cereal instead of 1 cup. There is also a much greater emphasis on whole grains.

The guidelines are friendlier towards vegetarian and vegan diets. In 2003, example statements on vegetarianism included:

"Plant foods are important, protective foods. This, however, does not mean that plant foods alone will make your diet a healthy one."

"Not eating meat removes the major source of  iron and zinc from daily meals."

"Dairy foods are the best source of calcium, which overcomes another of the nutritional shortcomings of a vegan diet."

(Reference: p. 13 of the 2003 Australian Dietary Guidelines found here.)

In 2013, we have the following:

"Alternatives to animal foods include nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and tofu. For all Australians, these foods increase dietary variety and can provide a valuable, affordable source of protein and other nutrients found in meats. These foods are also particularly impotant for those who follow vegetarian or vegan dietary patterns."

"Australians following a vegetarian diet can still meet nutrient requirements if energy needs are met and the appropriate number and variety of serves from the Five Food Groups are eaten throughout the day. For those eating a vegan diet, supplementation of B12 is recommended."

(Reference: p. 21 of the 2003 Australian Dietary Guidelines found here.)

In the brief summary of the guidelines, there is also the suggestion "Include some meat-free meals each week - include eggs, legumes such as beans and tofu, and nuts and seeds" (p. 21). Men are also told that they are probably eating too much red meat.

The guidelines are now less fat avoidant, focusing on avoiding saturated fats but promoting a moderate intake of unsaturated fats.

There is a mention of sustainable food choices for the environment, although this topic is not explored in any great detail and would easily be overlooked (and doesn't make the summary version of the guidelines, only the full document). 

There is also mention of the environmental factors (including socioeconomic circumstance) that can impact food choices and availability.

The strength given to recommendations for increased vegetable intake, fruit intake, and wholegrain intake is greater. Specifically, the new guidelines focus in more detail on the evidence linking these foods to lower rates of cancer and heart disease.

Source: Page 14 of the summary 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines booklet found here.

In all, I quite like the new guidelines. They still allow up to 3 'discretionary' food choices per day, which equates to 75g chocolate. They accept that I may choose not to eat meat or eggs or dairy products. They have lower carbohydrate recommendations, but also suggest that we match our dietary intake to our personal requirements. Given that I exercise regularly and on some days intensely, my carbohydrate requirements will be higher on some days.

There are still things I don't like, or which I would prefer to be worded differently, but I am not an expert on public health nutrition and I respect the effort that has gone into these guidelines. The challenge now, I suspect, is on helping Australia adopt them.

If you are Australian, are you familiar with the new guidelines? What do you think of them?
If you aren't Australian, how do they compare to the guidelines where you live?


  1. I didn't know there were new guidelines out... interesting! Although I know there has to be some sort of general guidelines for diet and nutrition - there can never be something that suits EVERY body, you know? Plus this day in age with all the allergies/food intolerances, yeeeesh - confusing to say the least.

    I think the FRUIT segment is too small!! ;)

    1. Ha, I know what you mean regarding fruit ;) I always interpret the guidelines as at least 2 serves!

  2. I am glad you posted this or it might have passed me by. From what you say the new guidelines seem an improvement. I find the food wheel easier to look at in the 2003 poster than the 2013 one - just shows that in having more diversity makes it harder to actually represent in a way that is easy on the eyes - I had to zoom in on the 2013 poster to get a sense of what was there. It is interesting to see how the charts reflect our taking on of vegetables that weren't part of my childhood like bok choy and sweet potato. I wonder if kale will appear in the next version of the dietary guidelines!

    1. You are right in that the 2013 wheel is a bit crowded - I was amused by the listing of quinoa too, as well as the vegetables you mention. Clearly what was once exotic is now main stream! I like the extra variety though and I wonder if it will make it easier for people to see how they might manage 5 serves of vegetables a day.

  3. Cool, it's good to hear the grain quantity went down a little - I always felt like 6-13 servings (or whatever is is/was) was way too much, especially because veggies are so much more nutritious (I'm not hating on the grains, I freaking love them, but like...6 cups of quinoa a day is a little much). It's also nice that they're saying good things about plant-based diets, woo hoo! And yeah, I'm never completely happy with dietary guidelines but it does seem to be moving in a better direction. I wonder where Canada's at with that!

    1. I think they'll never get guidelines that everyone is at, but as you say, movement in the right direction is good :) And I agree; the upper range of the previous carbohydrate recommendations was definitely a lot!

  4. Glad to see that the guidelines are now more veg-friendly. I'm going to have to look up our guidelines. (I never pay much attention to them though). But looking at these guidelines makes me feel good about how I eat. Besides my weekend alcohol intake (haha), I follow these pretty well already.

    1. In which case, you are probably healthier than at least 75% of the population :-)

  5. I love the inclusion of environmental and socioeconomic factors as relating to the importance of a plant-based diet!!

    1. Me too Gabby - it is probably one of the changes I like most!

  6. It's amazing how they've halved the carb intake. Poor old carbs, they're getting a bad rap these days xx

    1. I know! I would have preferred them to adjust the serving number and kept the serving size the same, especially because the old guidelines had lots of variation in recommended carbohydrate serves. They could have reduced the upper limit but kept a serve in the old system.

  7. I'm so glad you shared this! It's always interesting to see how the dietary guidelines change over the years and differ across the globe. From what I can see, it's very similar to the U.S dietary guidelines. More emphasis on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, less saturated fat. When it comes to fat, having been at the place where I avoided fat like the plague, I'm so glad to see that it draws more attention to the benefits of healthy fats. It is a macronutrient, and our body sure needs it! Plus, it's good for your hair too ;). I really love that pie chart at the very top of the post. We are such visual people and it sure makes things a lot easier for people. What I'm having trouble with is learning to communicate and convey messages in a way that's applicable and easy to understand. Having been in school for so long and writing research papers and memorizing numbers and statistics, I'm forgetting how to talk normally haha. That's going to be the biggest challenge for me, I think, moving forward. I've gained all this scientific knowledge, but people don't want to hear that. So how do I consolidate all that I know and communicate it in several sentences, half an hour, etc. Anyway, I usual..but what I was trying to say is, that's why I love that chart. Simplify, simplify, simplify bc eating healthy doesn't have to be hard. Right now, I'm part of an prevent childhood obesity advocacy program, and we work in low SES areas. Unfortunately, there's an extremely strong correlation between SES and obesity. I'm glad that the guidelines mention that as well!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Min. I always love hearing from you on topics like this, because we have such similar views and I also like your research / numbers / statistics slant ;) It is a challenge phrasing things in accessible language when you're not with others in your field, but I suspect you will get there, simply because you are so passionate about what you're doing!

  8. Poor carbs! People still think of them as evil. How about they try and ditch the idea that meat is good and let people eat carbs til they feel full - just think of all the fibre our country would be getting & how the rates of bowel cancer (one of our biggest killers) would go down!
    That said, at least its finally being accepted that people who choose not to eat meat might actually be 'healthy' and not just surviving ;-)


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