Why it’s becoming almost impossible to be healthy in Australia
It seems counter-intuitive. That in a country as wealthy as ours with a world-class healthcare system, 50% of Australians now live with a chronic disease.
Now, it’s easy to think that this is a failure of individual will, on a macro scale, but consider this.
If I had a class of 30 students and one of them was getting bad grades, it would make sense to turn to that individual to find out why they were late.
But if half of the child’s class failed, we wouldn’t hesitate to look at the class, the curriculum, or the larger environment.
It would seem totally illogical to single out half the class individually.
When it comes to our personal health, the cards are stacked against us in Australia.
At almost every moment of our day, it is harder for us to be healthy and easier for us to increase our risk of disease.
The good news is that there are things everyone can do to rebalance the card game for us and our communities.
The power of digital marketing
From the moment we wake up and turn to our screens, we’re harvested for data.
It is estimated that by the age of 13, the average Australian child will have collected 72 million data points about them – from our address, age and gender to our friends, preferences, emotions and habits. .
Even the things we “like” online and the products we look at or consider buying.
This data is used to sell specific products tailored to our individual tastes and desires. It targets us even when we are more emotionally vulnerable – or hungry.
This marketing from an early age shapes our norms and preferences. From the age of 3, children can begin to learn about — and essentially become addicted to — brands.
We know that the habits we form in childhood tend to stick with us for life. This is why so much time and money is spent tracking, marketing and influencing our kids.
Why your postal code is important
One of the best predictors of our life expectancy is our zip code. The built environment around us shapes our health in many ways.
In more affluent Melbourne suburbs like St Kilda, for example, the average distance to a fresh produce store is 400 metres.
Compare that to the 14 kilometers you’ll find in some low-income postcodes.
Access to green spaces and parks, health services, public transport, education and employment, all affect our ability to access and achieve good health.
The wide variation in these services sees nearly 2.5 times more junk food outlets in poorer ZIP codes than in wealthier ones.
More or less our neighborhood allows our health to show up in our risk of chronic disease.
Supermarkets are designed to trick us
Have you ever walked into a supermarket with two essential purchases in mind, but left with a basket overflowing with foods you didn’t need and weren’t good for your health?
You are not alone, and it’s not all your fault.
More science goes into building a supermarket than your average PhD thesis, and the modern supermarket has more in common with a casino than with a traditional marketplace.
In fact, the design of the supermarket is based on decades of behavioral studies.
The height and length of the aisles, the lighting used and even the music are all designed to keep you in the store longer and buying more.
We spend more time at the end of the aisles, so this real estate costs more. This results in a bias towards highly profitable and ultra-processed foods.
Unhealthy foods are twice as likely to be on sale and usually attract “buy one, get one free” discounts (which are illegal in some countries, by the way).
The result? We buy more things we didn’t come for and really don’t need.
Who can even decipher food labels?
Then there is food labelling. Even though we can navigate the manipulative environment, we still need to make sense of the food itself.
Now I’m a medical doctor with a doctorate in public health and even have trouble navigating the small text and long lists on the back of foods.
We have a system that is difficult to understand and optional for the manufacturer. Contrast that with some countries that have clearly labelled, colored, and mandatory food labels that interpret and communicate product safety.
It’s no surprise that many unhealthy products end up in our baskets and homes when you consider this:
- There are over 30 names for added sugar
- There are no restrictions on the amount of sugar or salt that can be added to foods
- Even foods on the market that say “no added sugar” can contain 30% sugar by weight.
Cost is perhaps the biggest and growing barrier for many of us when looking to put healthier foods on our plates.
As ultra-processed foods high in salt, fat, and sugar are getting cheaper, fresh foods seem to be getting more expensive.
Factor in the time it takes to buy, prepare and cook fresh food, and it becomes inaccessible and unrealistic for busy families.
Rebalancing the card game
Unfortunately, there is no single solution.
While it’s easy to think that we can just build more hospitals and medicalize ourselves out of this situation, it requires a deeper commitment to reshaping the factors that lie outside of healthcare.
The good news is that it is possible.
Countries like Denmark have taken bold steps to limit advertising to children, make cycling and walking the paths of least resistance, and strengthen their social protection systems.
So families living on the poverty line don’t have to choose between putting a roof over their heads and putting fresh food on the table. This has led to an obesity rate in Denmark about half ours in Australia.
What is needed is rethinking – and some action
There are things we can each do at home to rebalance the card game for ourselves and our communities.
Knowledge is a great first step. Arming ourselves with information to understand what ultra-processed food is, or how the supermarket influences our brains, or the power of digital marketing, could allow us to take small steps to better protect ourselves.
Above all, however, ironing out the steep hurdles that many Australians now face when it comes to accessing good health and affording good health will require action from all of us, and from our governments.
Although it sounds daunting, system change always starts with a single step – or a single conversation.
So talk to your family, neighbors and community leaders about the changes you would like to see.
When it comes to Australians and our health, don’t we all deserve a chance?
Watch part one of Madga’s big national health check tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ABC TV and ABC iview.