One-in-three Australians are eliminating gluten, dairy or meat from their diets and are reportedly healthier as a result, according to Australia’s largest ever diet survey released by the CSIRO today.
The CSIRO Healthy Diet Score 2016 report reveals that 12.1 per cent of Australians aren’t eating wheat and/or gluten; 12 per cent are avoiding dairy or lactose; and 8.6 per cent are eliminating meat and or animal products from their diets.
It also shows that Australians who avoid gluten, dairy or meat actually consume fewer discretionary foods – like alcohol, chocolate and cakes – than those who don’t opt for a gluten, meat or dairy-free diet.
“What we’ve found is that quite a significant number of Australians are choosing to remove food components like gluten, dairy or meat from their diet."
“There’s a new trend arising,” says post-doctoral research fellow at CSIRO Health & Biosecurity, Dr Sinead Golley.
“What we’ve found is that quite a significant number of Australians are choosing to remove food components like gluten, dairy or meat from their diet.
“We weren’t sure if social reasons were driving this trend but we found [in other research] that the majority of people are removing gluten and other foods from their diets to alleviate adverse and distressing symptoms.
“So this is not necessarily a trend driven by people who are reading articles about gluten and dairy-free food in the media. They are actually reporting experiencing adverse symptoms and are trying to control those symptoms by eliminating the consumption of these foods.”
Women: the big 'food avoiders'
The report also finds that women aged 18-30 are the biggest group of food avoiders, accounting for over 40 per cent of all Australians who stopped eating specific food products.
Around 20 per cent of ‘food avoiders’ eliminated one food only, while over 12 per cent were ‘poly-avoiders’ who avoided more than one food or food category.
"People may be symptomatic but don’t have a formal diagnosis to go wheat-free because there is no diagnostic test for wheat sensitivity."
According to Coeliac Australia, coeliac disease affects approximately one-in-70 Australians. The Coeliac Society of Australia says it mostly touches Caucasians and west Asians, and is uncommon in Asian and full-blood Australian Aboriginal populations.
However, research suggests that around 80 per cent of people with the condition remain undiagnosed.
Dr Golley notes the gap between the number of people recorded as having food intolerances and sensitivities, and the number of people eliminating food products like gluten, dairy and meat from their diets.
“I think the science is trying to catch up,” she says. “People may be symptomatic but don’t have a formal diagnosis to go wheat-free because there is no diagnostic test for wheat sensitivity.
“So this explains why people are self-managing their symptoms through dietary modification.”
Most Australian diets are below par
The CSIRO’s Healthy Diet Score is a free online assessment which evaluates diet quality and identifies individual areas of improvement. It also provides participants with a personal diet score out of 100.
The 2016 report found that 80 per cent of respondents received an individual score below 70, the benchmark figure to represent average health.
Overall Diet Score for single avoiders (avoiding only one food) was 62 and was similar to ‘polyavoiders’ (those avoiding more than one food).
Those avoiding meat or animal products (vegetarians or vegans) had the highest Diet Score of 66 out of 100.
CSIRO research director and co-author of the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, Professor Manny Noakes says there is room for all Australians to improve their diets.
"If we can raise our collective score by just over 10 points, we help Australia mitigate against the growing rates of obesity and lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and a third of all cancers”, Professor Noakes says.
"All people need to do is halve the bad and double the good. In other words, halve the amount of discretionary food you eat and double your vegetable intake."