22 Nov, 2016 Last updated: 22 Nov, 2016

We don’t like to admit it, but overall Australians have pretty poor diets.

We don’t like to admit it, but overall Australians have pretty poor diets. Jerril Rechter

The CSIRO proved this last month when it released its 2016 Healthy Diet Score which studied 86,500 adults across the country over a 12 month period and slapped Australians with an underwhelming diet score of 59 out of 100. 

The study found one in two of us don’t meet the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommended daily fruit intake and more than one third of us admit to eating more than the recommended allowance of fast food.

Given our national diet score suggests we like to guzzle the foods we should only be eating in small quantities, you could be excused for thinking removing the very foods and beverages we love to consume from fridges and shelves in retail settings is a poor business decision. 

It turns out, it’s actually quite a sensible one. 

Using the Victorian Government’s Healthy Choices guidelines, which classifies food and drinks according to the traffic light system of ‘green’ (best choice), ‘amber’ (choose carefully) and red (limit intake), the City of Melbourne, Alfred Health and YMCA Victoria have shown incredible leadership by implementing healthy eating policies and conducting innovative trials that aim to reduce the number of high fat, sugar and salt ‘red’ coded items for sale. 

A Deakin University evaluation, funded by VicHealth clearly demonstrates the resounding success of the trials and shows that retailers can dramatically decrease the amount of unhealthy food and beverages their customers consume without significantly impacting a business’ bottom line. 

Whether in cafes, kiosks or vending machines, the trials led to significant increases in the sale of ‘green’ and ‘amber’ coded items and major reductions in the sale of ‘red’ coded products. 

The YMCA Victoria’s trials alone resulted in a reduction of around 2,000 fewer cans of soft drink per month being sold across the nine centres that were evaluated. 

The results of all three trials show the willingness of people to switch to a healthier option if their first choice of food or drink is unavailable. 

It also demonstrates that despite our poor diet scores, there are many Victorians who actually want to make healthier choices when eating out but are limited in the availability of ‘green’ and amber foods. 

Concern for business viability is undoubtedly one factor preventing retailers from embracing healthy eating policies. 

Of course there is also concern for backlash from customers who may feel they should be able to make their own independent food decisions.

The evaluation of Alfred Health, City of Melbourne and YMCA Victoria trials showed strong customer support and that reducing the availability of unhealthy items didn’t lead to customers bringing in unhealthy food and drinks from home. 

These findings support a recent VicHealth survey of 3,000 Australians which showed a significant appetite for increased availability of healthy foods and beverages in particular settings. 

The survey revealed 69% of respondents believed restaurants and fast food chains should provide healthier options to consumers to help reduce obesity, as well as support for completely banning sugar sweetened beverages in public hospital or healthcare facilities (47%), sports and recreation centres (39%) and kiosks in parks (37%).

Critically, respondents also said they would be more likely to purchase healthier food and drinks at a sporting event if it was cheaper than an unhealthy option (74%) and more likely to buy a healthier option from a vending machine if it was cheaper than unhealthy foods and drinks (73%). 

The success of the three trials, supported by our community attitudes data, clearly shows the health benefits of implementing healthy eating policies in key public health settings.

It also demonstrates a desire by a significant proportion of the community to make healthier choices. Food retailers in all settings, including healthcare, sports and recreation centres, play a crucial role in improving the availability of healthy food and beverages. 

We need more organisations innovating and looking for ways to reduce the growing obesity burden. They don’t have to be major changes. Small and phased interventions can have a marked difference over time.

More and more retailers stocking healthier food will also send a clear message to food manufacturers that if they want to be on store shelves, they must ensure their foods and beverages have nutritious value and are low in sugar, fat and salt. 

The successful implementation of healthy eating policies and trials in settings such as Alfred Health, YMCA Victoria and The City of Melbourne’s North Melbourne Recreation Centre serves as a shining example of what can be achieved through strong leadership. 

These trials also show that reducing availability of unhealthy food and drinks and providing consumers with healthier options can also prove a wise business decision. 

Healthy food and happy customers without hampering revenue gives other businesses the green light to implement similar kinds of policies.

Jerril Rechter
CEO VicHealth