Limit availability of unhealthy food, study urges ACT
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Limit availability of unhealthy food, study urges ACT

The ACT government should expand work with retailers and food outlets in limiting availability and sales of unhealthy foods, a national study of government food policies has found.

The ACT has led other states and territories in policies to reduce obesity, but lagged on several indicators in the national survey of food policy.

Nearly two-thirds of Australian adults are overweight or obese.

Nearly two-thirds of Australian adults are overweight or obese.Credit:Getty Images

A study identifying areas for Australian governments to improve in stemming the rise of obesity found huge variation between states and territories in how nutrition policies were implemented had diminished efforts to solve the problem.

It said the ACT compared favourably on most indicators for food policy, including menu labelling, restricting promotion of unhealthy food, school policies promoting healthy food, monitoring population body weight and having food and nutrition in the school curriculum.

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However it was behind other states and territories on having an independent health promotion agency, mechanisms to support community-based initiatives, evaluating major programs and policies, and monitoring population nutrition intakes.

The study, conducted by Deakin University's Gary Sacks, involved more than 100 nutrition and policy experts from 53 organisations across the country.

Its findings come after high intakes of sugar-laden foods and drinks among children prompted leading expert Professor Stephen Colagiuri to call on the federal government to act now to introduce a new tax on sugary beverages.

Expanding existing work with retailers and food service outlets to improve in-store availability of healthy foods, and to limit availability and sales of unhealthy foods, should be the ACT's greatest priority, Dr Sacks' report said.

The government should also continue demonstrating leadership in restricting the promotion of unhealthy food and beverages in community and sports events, and particularly in children's settings, the study said.

It recommended several other top priorities, including: Implementing ongoing monitoring of food environments, with a focus on the nutritional quality of food provided in early childcare settings, schools, and public sector settings; developing and implementing healthy food guidelines for early childhood settings and non-government schools; and continuing efforts to improve population nutrition through community education and awareness strategies.

While Australia led the world in some policies to improve population nutrition, such as food labelling and keeping nutritious food GST-free, it was falling behind international best practice in others, the study found.

The country needed an overall national nutrition policy, and had to reduce children's exposure to marketing of unhealthy food.

"Often good policies exist, but they are not being implemented in a coordinated way," Dr Sacks said.

"It's a good start to have policies for restricting junk foods in school canteens, but if kids are then inundated with unhealthy foods at sports venues, and they see relentless junk food ads on prime-time TV, it doesn't make it easy for them to eat well.

"There is no silver bullet to helping people eat more healthily. We know from international evidence that we need coordination across federal, state and local government to implement a whole suite of different policies to tackle the problem."

The report recommended taxes to increase the price of unhealthy foods, especially sugary drinks, and regulations to reduce exposure of children to marketing of unhealthy food.

Almost two out of three (63 per cent) of Australian adults are overweight or obese.

Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.

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