Vegetable intake a serious problem 50 years on

27 October 2017

Diet will become the number one modifiable factor for disease and death, overtaking cigarettes, experts warn as Australia reflects on the golden anniversary of dietetics, which started at Sydney.

Women born between 1945 to 1970 are actually the largest drinkers [of energy-rich, nutrient-poor alcohol].
Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli

This year marks 50 years of dietetics and nutrition as a university course in Australia. The University of Sydney started its program in 1967, back when nutrition related treatment was conducted mostly in hospitals.

Since then, plenty has changed but there also seems to be some age-old issues that need to be addressed, so we sat down with Professor of Dietetics at the Charles Perkins Centre, Margaret Allman-Farinelli, and PhD candidate with the School of Life and Environmental Sciences Monica Nour to understand the current Australian diet and the challenges that exist.

Times have changed

“I think that the biggest thing that’s happened in 50 years is the food available – the supply has really changed,” says Professor Allman-Farinelli.

“What’s hard for us now is the food environment encourages people to eat unhealthily.”

Most people are not aware that diet is the second leading cause of cancer and it will soon overtake smoking, with the rate of obesity worldwide continuing to increase.

“If we go back 50 years, most people were consuming food inside the home – family meals were regularly prepared. There were less women working fulltime so people had more time,” she says.

Given the environment for consumption has changed, our attitudes have too.

“Most people weren’t looking at food as a ‘meal solution’. I don’t think that was the case back then – that food was seen as a problem.”

The proliferation of takeaway food options has exacerbated this dietary trend. The first Pizza Hut opened in Australia in 1970 and shortly after, ready-to-eat meals burst onto the scene.

“We have seen a shift in what we would call a low-energy density diet to high-energy density diets that include added fat, starch and sugars and a shift away from fruit and vegetables."

“Fruit and vegetables have a lot of water in them so you get a bigger volume to satisfy your appetite whereas concentrated sources of energy with a lot of added sugar and fat like some cereal bars don’t have the same level of satiety.”

Fruit and vegetables are also nutrient dense and full of fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Regular consumption is associated with reduced risk of obesity, cancer and all-cause mortality – that’s why dietitians sing their praises.

And not only that, increased vegetable consumption can improve weight loss among young adults. Professor Allman-Farinelli completed a study last year that demonstrated increased vegetable consumption was responsible for 19 percent of the weight loss that occurred in a three-month period for those on the program.

Worrying statistics 

A National Nutrition and Physical Activity survey was completed in Australia in 2011-12, highlighting vegetable intake is worst among young adults aged 18-34.

This demographic consumes 2.7 servings a day compared with Australian Dietary Guidelines that suggest six servings of vegetables for men and five servings for women.

Public Health and Nutrition PhD student Monica Nour, an accredited practising dietitian, has completed secondary analysis of this data to find out how intake differs by sociodemographic factors, and explore consumption trends including the variety of vegetables eaten and intake by meal occasion.

Monica further divided this young adult demographic into three segments and found that 18 to 24 year olds are the most prolific offenders of a low vegetable lifestyle with men worse than women. Just 0.9 percent of males achieve their recommended daily intake of veggies in this age bracket.

Using focus groups to gather opinions, Monica recently highlighted three important factors that concern young people when choosing what to eat.

“The things that interest young adults the most are taste and then there’s convenience then health,” Monica states.

Professor Allman-Farinelli said poor eating habits in young adults can occur as a result of moving from a supervised environment to a more autonomous lifestyle.

“Young adults are very price sensitive – they don’t have a large budget available and are more inclined to go for lower priced items," she said.

“Sometimes too, they start to give up sport after competing throughout high school – this is a bigger issue for men not getting as much physical activity.

“Alcohol also starts to come into the picture, this age group are not the largest drinkers – they may binge drink but they don’t consume as much alcohol as older adults in terms of mean intake – women born between 1945 to 1970 are actually the largest drinkers.” More analysis of drinking trends can be found in a recent paper by PhD student Amanda Grech.

Most food product advertising is again tailored to teens and young adults, especially discretionary foods.

“One of the other barriers was participants had difficulty conceptualising meals and recipes that included veggies - something like a pasta dish – they just didn’t know how veggies fit into that,” she said.

Monica also found that those who achieved the recommended daily intake of vegetables had dispersed them throughout the day across both meals and snacks.

“We need to provide people with the skills and knowledge to have the confidence to shop, prepare and store vegetables. Participants also wanted practical demonstrations on different types of meals.”

The search for a solution 

To address these issues, Monica is actioning a social media intervention and has developed an app to positively influence fruit and vegetable intake among young adults through gamification.

With 95 percent of people owning a smart phone and 91 percent on social media it seems like the best platform to utilise.

Monica’s app will include a self-monitoring veggie tracking program - a specialised function similar to apps like MyFitnessPal though hers will focus on nutrient dense food intake rather than calories. She will also gamify the app with opportunities for users to be rewarded with badges when they hit their targets, helping users to set goals and receive personalised feedback.

Her research has shown these types of cues are the most motivating to young adults.

“People can also access videos and quick tips addressing barriers such as costs through the social media site. We’ve also included shopping lists and recipes.

“We demonstrate what an adequate serving of vegetables looks like and show how preparing your own food can be cheaper.”

This is important because her research showed most young adults don’t actually know what a serving of fruit or vegetables looks like.

“And how are they supposed to improve on a behaviour if they don’t know the target and goal?” says Monica.

In case you’re a bit perplexed, one serving of cooked vegetables equates to half a cup or half a medium potato, while one serving of raw vegetable salad mix is about one cup – roughly equivalent to a handful.

Seventy students now complete the Master of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sydney each year and their work is more important than ever as we continue to face an obesity epidemic. 

The University of Sydney’s golden anniversary of nutrition and dietetics will be held on 27 October commencing with a seminar and followed by a celebratory alumni dinner.

Interested in what’s being served up to a room full of dietitians? View the event menu below. (The desserts are not their first preference but they do include fruit!)



Selection of seasonal raw vegetables served with creamy hummus (vegan,gf)

Tandoori lamb, baby potato, yogurt (gf)

Pan seared dory, smoked cherry tomato, asparagus, celeriac puree, salsa verde (gf)

Smoked corn-fed chicken breast, Jerusalem artichoke, king brown mushroom and hazelnut cream sauce (sauce served on the side)

Fresh sourdough bread roll with olive oil on the side in lieu of butter

Steamed brocollini, green beans and toasted almonds with lemon oil

Opera cake, chocolate ganache, rosella flower and raspberry cream

Pavlova, lavender chantilly, meringue, strawberries, kiwi, rosewater jelly (gf)


Dessert will be followed by freshly brewed coffee, a selection of teas and handmade chocolates.

No sugary drinks (soft drinks, juices etc.)

Sparkling and still water

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