With the release of the 2008/09 nutrition survey summary report last week, I was heartened to read that diet-wise, New Zealand adults seem to be starting to make the right choices. According to the survey, since 1997 we’ve reduced our overall energy fat, saturated fat and sugar intakes. We’re eating more healthy fats and protein, fruit and selenium. We also have lower total cholesterol levels with a better total:HDL-cholesterol ratio, potentially due to these dietary changes, but more likely due to higher rates of statin use. A couple of interesting findings were the drop in our intakes of vitamin A, iron and zinc; possibly resulting from cutting down on full cream dairy products and red meat.
But the real kicker is what’s happened to our waistlines, despite all this apparent healthy change. There’s no doubt about it – we’re all getting fatter. Sadly, as is often the case, this trend disproportionately affects certain groups in the population, with obesity rates amongst Maori and Pacific peoples in particular, starting to scale to dizzying proportions.
While everyone agrees the reasons are multifaceted, a number of experts have provided commentary in the past week as to why this dichotomy is being seen, including (and I’m paraphrasing for the sake of brevity):
1. “It’s because people under-report what they eat in surveys” (Rod Jackson)
Yes, this has been documented in the literature, but in comparing like methodology with like methodology are we really likely to be recording our food intake any less accurately now than we were in 1997? Even with an interviewer in our homes and going through our cupboards? I’m not sure this is the only explanation.
2. It’s partly because we’re less active than ever before and the survey did not assess activity levels.
Certainly the basic energy in: energy out equation loop isn’t completed without an assessment of physical activity levels. There is no question that sedentary behaviour is the elephant in the room with respect to obesity. No matter how much we idolise our sporting heroes as a nation, the majority of us are more likely to sit on our backsides for most of the day. Every day. But, are we likely to be even more sedentary now than we were in 1997? The 2006/07 NZ Health Survey found no change in regular physical activity between 2002/03 and 2006/07. However, according to Professor Grant Schofield, our levels of sedentary behaviour are likely to be on the increase, with more hours of TV viewing, more sedentary jobs and greater car ownership/distance travelled by car in the last 15 years. I don’t think we’ve heard the last on just how dangerous sitting can be for our health.
3. “It’s because our environment is too jammed with easily available high fat, salt and sugar foods” Robyn Toomath.
This is where we start to go around in circles, because the dietary intake data on the whole indicate we’re actually eating less fat and sugar. In fact the only source of sugar which is growing in our diets seems to be fruit. And in our fear of fat we seem to be switching to low fat dairy at the expense of retinol intakes and cutting out red meat to the expense of our zinc and iron intakes. So are we reporting our intakes correctly? (… and the circular nature of this dicussion goes on).
I would love to know what you make of all of this. It would be great to get a discussion going. Just insert a comment below (if there are no comments yet you need to click on the no comments box in order to make one).