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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Helping Australia get healthy

People tend to have a number of pre-conceived ideas about what dietitians should and should not eat. It is as though once you become a fully qualified “diet Nazi” that you should never be seen consuming anything other than salad and day to day food traditions such as a sausage sandwich enjoyed at rugby training or a slice of cake with a cup of coffee need to be immediately abandoned. Such behaviours are greeted with total shock or disappointment by those who liked to view you as a dietary angel and who have since been bitterly disappointed.

This shock tends to be continued when dietitians are associated with food companies and their products, particularly if the company or the product are not what one may consider representative of a nutritionally ideal food choice.

Personally, while there are some products I would never feel comfortable endorsing, especially as the specialist obesity dietitian at one of Australia’s largest paediatric teaching hospitals, I still think it is important that dietitians play a significant role working with and for food companies to help them develop better food products for the average householder.

It is for this reason that I sit on the Coca Cola Nutrition Advisory Board. I do not do it because Coca Cola pay me huge amounts of money to tell the public that sugar sweetened beverages are good for you, I do it because if a company the size of Coca Cola is helped to improve the nutritional quality of their products, they have the potential to influence the health of a country, and that is pretty powerful stuff. A single dietitian can only educate and counsel so many people, but a large food company can influence the health of millions, directly by making better products or indirectly by improving the bad ones.

So, for this reason I congratulate companies like McDonalds and Coca Cola who are making an effort to improve their products rather than put their head in the sand and pretend that it is not their job to help their consumers in a quest to make healthier choices where possible.

But there is still much work to be done. There are many areas of the Australian packaged food supply that still require significant change. The major manufacturers of snack food, biscuits, cakes and breakfast cereal in Australia all need to look at ways in which they can improve the quality of fat and carbohydrate they are using with some of their products. No one is pointing the finger; there is not one food product that is making Australians’ fat but there is no doubt that there are a number of positive nutrition changes food companies could make to assist their customers with their weight battles.

And so, I challenge these food companies, the ones who have an enormous influence over what Australian children and adults buy and eat to start to think about how they can help Australians’ be healthier rather than bagging out other companies when they try. As is the case in elite sport, champion teams never spend time bagging out the opposition, instead they focus on building a competitive team that others want to be like. Why food companies waste time and money on advertising that bags out other products or legally trying to get new and innovative products off the market is beyond me. Can they instead spend this time and money on improving their own products and giving their consumers more healthy choices? Please tell me that some more of these powerful companies are up for the challenge?