Hot Topics

DA’s ‘hot topics’ summarise the latest research and current thinking on topical nutrition issues in the media.

Planning your pantry during the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2020)

With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe, eating nutritious foods and having an adequate access to food is now top of mind for many.

To help ease some of the confusion, we’ve collated some steps to take to help you feel prepared regarding your food supply, in the event you need to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Preparing your household for quarantine

Recently, we’ve seen people flocking to the stores to stock up on pantry staples. Panic-buying food places greater strain on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community and increases the risk of food insecurity and poor health. Being sensible at the supermarket is key to looking after the health of our whole community.

In the event of needing to self-quarantine, it’s important to have a plan. This is especially the case if you or a family member falls ill and you can’t leave the house. Making a plan that works for your household (rather than just stockpiling lots of food) means you are well prepared.  It’s also more considerate of others in your community.

The first step is to look at what you already have. Check out what you have in your pantry and freezer and look at their use-by date. You may even be able to free up space at the back of the freezer by throwing out those ‘forgotten foods’ that may no-longer be safe to consume. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), provide some handy tips regarding safe handling and storage of food at home.

Next, make a list of longer lasting and shelf stable foods from the major food groups as outlined below to guide you at the supermarket. Purchase items your household will eat and enjoy, to prevent future food wastage. For canned food, check you have a working can opener (or choose cans with ‘ring pulls’).

Food items to consider:

  • Fruit: Fresh fruit (choose those that last longer such as apples, bananas and citrus fruits), frozen fruits, dried fruit (eat in small amounts) and canned varieties.
  • Vegetables: Fresh produce (choose those that last longer, such as potatoes, onions, carrots, pumpkin, and cabbage), frozen vegetables and canned vegetables (e.g. tinned tomatoes, corn, beetroot etc).
  • Cans of soup
  • Protein sources:
    • Canned fish (e.g. salmon, tuna or sardines)
    • Legumes (canned or dried)
    • Nuts and seeds (including nut butters)
    • Long life milk (UHT or powdered milk)
  • Grains: Consider a range of grains such as rice, pasta, quinoa, cous cous, rolled oats and cereals. Freezing a loaf of bread or wraps can also extend its freshness and shelf life.
  • Long life sauces/herbs and spices: Relying on shelf-stable foods, can increase the sodium in our diet, as salt is used to help preserve foods. Having a range of herbs and spices on hand can help boost the flavour of foods without needing to extra salt.
  • Foods for enjoyment: In times of isolation and uncertainty, having foods that are a source of comfort, or a reminder of daily routine, can be beneficial for your mental health. Some examples include coffee or chocolate. While you won’t need much, it’s important they’re not forgotten.

At the moment, it’s best to focus on easy recipes with simple ingredients. It is also worth cooking a little extra so you have a few meals prepared and frozen in the freezer. This helps to provide meal variety and — if you were to fall ill — means you have a nutritious option ready to go.

For recipe ideas from APDs, see DA’s Smart Eating Recipe collection. Many of these can be easily adapted for canned or frozen goods, and many can be made in batches and frozen for future use. Some examples include:

For more information about food and your health provision, visit your local Accredited Practising Dietitian: dietitiansaustralia.org.au/find-an-apd/  

For additional information about COVID-19, visit: www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert

Introducing a ‘sugar-sweetened beverage tax’ in Australia: One small part of the solution (April 2019)

What’s DA position on a ’sugar-sweetened beverage’ tax?

Taxes on discretionary foods and beverages may be a useful tool for the public health toolbox. Such taxes may help to improve population health if sufficiently large, well designed, clearly communicated and combined with other policies and measures.

DA supports a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) at levels that will impact on consumer behaviour. A tax on SSBs would convey the benefit of drinking fewer beverages high in added sugars. DA considers it important that:

  • a tax on SSBs is sufficiently large (i.e. 20% or higher) to reduce intakes and incentivise a switch to healthy alternatives.
  • all revenue generated from a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is allocated to nutrition-related health programs and policies in Australia.
  • the tax is considered as part of a broad and multifaceted approach to address diet-related health issues, and combined with other interventions, such as:
    • robust obesity prevention public education campaigns;
    • campaigns that target the highest consumers of SSBs;
    • consumer-friendly food and nutrition labelling initiatives (e.g. Health Star Rating (HSR) front-of-pack labelling) with increased support for HSR consumer education;
    • increased access to healthy foods and beverages in public settings (e.g. childcare, schools, workplaces, sport and recreation centres, hospitals, rural and remote stores, shopping centres);
    • tighter regulations on the marketing of food and beverages to children; and
    • a national food reformulation program to reduce the amount of sugar, saturated fat and sodium in foods sold within Australia.
  • the Government gives clear messages that the tax is introduced to improve the health of the population.
  • the impact of a tax (and other measures) on SSBs is routinely monitored and evaluated to determine changes in consumption behaviour and the impact on health outcomes.

Is there evidence to support a tax on SSBs?

Evidence to support a tax on SSBs comes mainly from modelling studies or observational studies of the causal chain linking a SSB tax to health outcomes. Other research to support such a tax on SSBs comes from price elasticity studies, which indicate how price influences demand. Such research suggests that price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of SSBs and other high sugar products at least in the short term, with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation.

Real-world evidence regarding the precise impact of a SSB tax on health outcomes remains scarce, with much of the research focussing on sales data and consumption data. However, a case for such a tax can be made, as the available evidence does point to effectiveness.

More information about the research can be found here.

New survey: Be cautious of online nutrition advice not backed by evidence

A survey of 2,000 Australian adults, currently gaining media attention, emphasizes that many people turn to the internet or social media influencers for information on weight loss. But different research suggests they may not trust what they find.

This perhaps unsurprising result – given we live in a digital age – is being reported in the media this week.

According to media reports, 44 per cent of those surveyed by LiveLighter said they used the internet as their preferred source for information on weight loss. General practitioners came in as the second most-preferred choice at 38 per cent, followed by a dietitian or nutritionist (17 per cent), and a social media influencer (12 per cent).

The findings have prompted a call for people to be savvier about where they source their diet advice, and to question the credibility of advice from personalities (or influencers) on social media who are not qualified in nutrition.

But while this survey confirms people look for weight loss information online and through social media, other research suggests they may not trust what they find.

An Omnipoll survey (September 2017) of around 1,200 Australian adults, commissioned by the Dietitians Australia (DA), found almost nine in 10 Australians (85%) trust the nutrition advice of a dietitian[i].

On the flip-side, just 27 per cent trust nutrition advice from the internet, and less than one in four have confidence in the nutrition advice of healthy eating bloggers (23%).

The Omnipoll survey results suggest most Australians strongly back the advice of a qualified nutrition professional.

DA recommends people looking to improve their nutrition or manage their weight seek expert advice and support from an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).

APDs have spent a lot of time – in fact, at least four years at university – studying nutrition science. This gives them a solid grounding in evaluating scientific research and translating this into evidence-based, flexible advice, that’s tailored to each individual – taking in account factors like a person’s medical history, as well as their needs, goals and lifestyle.

And unlike many celebrities, wellness gurus or social media personalities, APDs are bound by professional standards.

The bottom line:

Be cautious about any nutrition advice found online, including from social media influencers or wellness gurus who don’t have a qualification in nutrition science. Instead, check any nutrition claims with a health professional, such as an APD.

Seek out evidence-based nutrition information from reputable organisations, including through their social media channels, and if you need tailored nutrition advice and support, contact your local APD.

[i] Omnipoll survey (September 2017) of 1,225 Australians aged 18+ years, commissioned by the Dietitians Australia.

The gut microbiome (November 2017)

Digestive health is currently one of the hottest topics in nutrition. But why this sudden interest in a healthy gut? What is the gut microbiome and how is it linked with health?

Gut microbiome
Digestive health is currently one of the hottest topics in nutrition. But why this sudden interest in a healthy gut?

The role of the gut microbiome (also called ‘microbiota’) in health and disease is an area of intensive research – and is making media headlines, with many people keen to learn how to tap into the benefits, including through the foods they eat. But the gut microbiome is a rapidly developing and young field, and there are many aspects of the microbiome that are not yet well understood[1].

What is the gut microbiome?

The term ‘gut microbiome’ refers to the collection of microorganisms (including bacteria, arachea, viruses, fungi and unicellular eukaryotes) that live in our gastrointestinal tract (or gut), with the greatest number and diversity in the colon.

Emerging evidence suggests that while environmental factors such as diet, medications (like antibiotics) and disease conditions can affect the make-up of our gut microbiome in a short time frame (as little as a few days), our genes most certainly also have a role to play[2].

How is the microbiome linked to health?

Long gone are the days when we assumed that all bacteria were harmful! While there is still more to learn about the gut microbiome, the best evidence to date is around its role in areas such as digestion, metabolism and immunity[3].

The early years

Colonisation of the gut begins at birth – and the passage of infants through the birth canal seems to be really important. As well as this, exclusive breastfeeding encourages growth of beneficial microbiota. Research tells us that babies delivered by caesarean section and those not exclusively breastfed have a microbiome that is initially less diverse.

Digestion, metabolism and immunity

The gut microbiome is key in a number of metabolic functions in our body, including synthesising a variety of vitamins (all B vitamins and vitamin K) and amino acids, digesting carbohydrates (such as insoluble fibre, resistant starch, pectins, gums and cellulose), producing short-chain fatty acids, and assisting bile with glucose and cholesterol metabolism.

In addition, many chemical mediators produced by the gut microbiome enter our blood stream and communicate with organs such as our brain, heart and liver.

Gut microbiota are also our first internal line of defence against pathogens (or harmful bacteria), protecting the body against disease, alongside our immune system. They produce antimicrobial compounds and compete for nutrients and sites of attachment in the lining of our gut, and in doing so suppress (or prevent colonisation) of pathogens2.

And disease?

Researchers are discovering that a disruption in the gut microbiome may been linked with certain diseases, but the specific contribution of the microbiome to these conditions is not yet clear.

Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota (that is, an imbalance among the microorganisms in the body) is thought to affect metabolism and play a role in certain conditions, such as obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, neurodevelopmental disorders (such as autism), anxiety and depression, and gut-related conditions (such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease).

Researchers are unsure how manipulating the microbiota (such as by changing the specific species of microorganisms in the gut or altering the balance of these) might be able to be used to prevent or treat these conditions. So, we still have some way to go in understanding exactly how best to harness the microbiota.

What impact does diet have on the gut microbiome?

Diet has a huge influence on our gut microbiota composition[4]. Some researchers suggest today’s typically low-fibre, Western-style diet as a reason for a loss of diversity in the gut microbiome.

And our gut microbial profile will be different if we eat, for example, a diet based on plant foods or one rich in animal foods – due to corresponding changes in the bacteria involved in metabolising the nutrients in these foods (whether that be carbohydrates or protein).

Unfortunately, many Australians don’t eat enough dietary fibre – which directly affects gut health. On average, Australians are not getting the recommended daily amounts of at least 25g of fibre for women and 30g for men[5]. Eating enough dietary fibre (both insoluble and soluble fibre) has many health benefits, including improving gut health.

Probiotics and prebiotics

Sometimes called the ‘dynamic duo’, prebiotics and probiotics affect the gut microbiome, and interest in these continues to increase. But there are many knowledge gaps around probiotics and prebiotics, and their effect on gut microbiota.

Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria or yeasts (like those found naturally in the gut) that, when taken in adequate amounts, can improve the balance of the gut microbiome. A lot of research has been done on probiotics and the evidence on their efficacy is mixed, with most health-related effects thought to be strain specific. Probiotics are found in everyday foods like yoghurt, milk drinks like kefir, and other fermented foods, like kombucha, kimchi, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut and sourdough bread. Probiotic supplements are also available.

In contrast, prebiotics are types of carbohydrates that reach the large bowel unchanged (that is, they are not digested or are only partly digested) and can, as a result, encourage beneficial microbes or ‘good’ bacteria to grow in the gut. Examples of prebiotic foods include cereal grains, vegetables (including asparagus, onions and cabbage), legumes (like chick peas and lentils), fruit (such as bananas and nectarines) and nuts. More research is needed on the links between prebiotics and any direct health benefits.

Resistant starch is another component of food which has been linked with gut health. Resistant starch isn’t fully broken down in the small intestine, so reaches the colon intact – where it stimulates gut microbiota to produce short-chain fatty acids. One of these, butyrate, helps keep the lining of the colon healthy. Examples of foods containing resistant starch are firm bananas, lentils, peas, potatoes that have been cooked and cooled, cold pasta, and certain wholegrain products.

The bottom line:

The gut microbiome is complex and largely poorly understood. With research in this area booming, in the future we will better understand the connection between the microbiome and diseases.

So how do we reach a healthy gut microbiome, based on our knowledge so far? Aim for a healthy, balanced and varied diet, based around whole foods, and rich in fibre. Resistant starch is also important for gut health, and consider probiotic and prebiotic foods, which are considered safe to eat.

For people who are confused about what the eat or want more specific advice, DA recommends seeking this from an Accredited Practising Dietitian