Australians still eating too much sugar, teenagers particularly at risk, research shows.

By Emily Bourke

More than half of Australians are exceeding the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended daily intake of added sugars, new research shows.

The alarm-raising research by Sydney University, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found especially bad habits in children and adolescents, with 76 per cent of teenagers exceeding the guidelines for daily sugar intake.

The research indicated that in the past 20 years, there was little to no change in the eating habits of Australians and in their consumption of sugar, despite the higher level of awareness around portion control and warnings about sugar-enriched foods.

Sydney University’s Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Timothy Gill, said their research was the first time they had been able to calculate fairly accurately the amount of sugar being consumed by the Australian population.

“And it was quite alarming,” he said.

Professor Gill said they were not surprised to find that teenagers and pre-teens were consuming sugar-rich foods.

“That’s the market that these sorts of foods, particularly soft drinks, are highly targeted to,” Professor Gill said.

“It is surprising the rest of the population is having such a high level, but most disturbing is just the amount of sugar, and particularly the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages, which are being consumed by teenagers.

“And most depressing is the fact that compared to a survey back in 1995, we’ve been trying to compare the levels of consumption — we can’t directly compare them — but it does appear that we haven’t seen much improvement in that time.”

‘A double whammy’ as less calories needed, junk food intake the same

What the researchers saw was that the key sources of sugar had not changed.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages still provide such a large proportion of the sugars consumed — around 25 per cent for the whole of the population — but amongst teenagers, it rises up to about 33, 34 per cent of all the sugar being consumed from sugar-sweetened beverages,” he said.

“We have seen some small improvements, particularly in the very young children.

“And at the other end of the spectrum, the elderly are also perhaps improving their diets compared to 20 years ago.”


Professor Gill said the findings were distressing to the team because over the years since 1995, the amount of calories required by the general population had fallen.

“We’re being less physically active, so it’s becoming harder to get all the right sorts of foods within our daily energy allowance, our daily calorie allowance,” he said.

“And so the more discretionary sweets or junk food that are consumed, the less of the right sort of foods are consumed.

“So you’re getting a double whammy: you’re getting a reduction in the consumption of fruits, vegetables, meats, milks and other fresh produce, which contribute the sorts of nutrients that are needed, particularly during the adolescent growth years.

“And you’re getting on top of that an additional load of sugar and salt and other things that come within these foods, which we know are detrimental to our health.”

‘Australia should be following UK footsteps with sugar tax’

Professor Gill said people could not go on believing they were only “having a little bit” when it came to junk food.

“[People think,] ‘we’re just having two or three biscuits a day, or a can of soft drink a day. It’s not doing us any harm.’ But clearly it’s contributing to excess calories; clearly it’s excluding more appropriate foods,” he said.

“And I think the time has come where we’ve just got to accept that whilst these foods have a role in our diet, they’re a very, very small role. And we need to restrict them quite severely.”

He said one problem was that the food supply industry was dominated by highly processed foods that are attractive and palatable.

“And they’re very cheap, as well as being aggressively marketed,” Professor Gill said.

“I suppose this comes up at a time when the UK have decided to impose a tax upon soft drinks to send a price signal that these very high sugar-rich foods are perhaps not that good for our health.

“And I can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be following suit in Australia. In fact, I’m very disappointed that we didn’t lead.”

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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