Less than 10 years ago, Canberrans would queue at shopping malls and school fetes to get their hands on Krispy Kreme doughnuts or line for hours at the all-you-can-eat Sizzler restaurant in Belconnen.
Before that, across the country, a McDonald's birthday party with complimentary ice-cream cake was the dream of any 10-year-old.
As fatty and sugary food took over our diets, Australians' waistlines exploded and now more than three in five Australians are classified as overweight or obese.
Healthy-eating campaigns, such as the ACT government's Towards Zero Growth initiative, have been formed to tackle the crisis and cut down on obesity. They've got their work cut out for them when they consider Australian Bureau of Statistics data that shows more than half of all Australians are still overweight or obese, up to 61.2 per cent in 2008 compared with 56.3 per cent in 1995.
But in a rare positive indicator in the fight against obesity, experts say Australians' fast-food choices have been getting healthier, smaller and more diverse over the past five years and US trends, such as the Cheeseburger Crust Pizza, are smaller and increasingly short-lived.
Marketing and fast-food experts say it is due to a push by customers, who have been asking for more choice and healthier options in their fast-food choices.
A Euromonitor report published in November found the fast-food sector in Australia had grown at a slower rate than expected in 2012. Compared with a general growth rate of 5 per cent across the Australian food service industry, takeaway food grew at only 2 per cent.
In its report, Euromonitor attributed this to both a slow-down in spending and a growing awareness of healthy eating. ‘‘Consumers, ever aware of health and wellness concerns, as well as budgetary constraints, [have] frequented the category less,’’ the report said.
In the US there was a 5 per cent growth in total value sales and the industry was expected to grow at a similar rate in the future.
Queensland University of Technology business school senior lecturer Gary Mortimer said the fast-food business in Australia was changing. ‘‘We’ve seen the industry undergo a health kick," he said. "We’ve seen more juice bars and salad bars and, to some extent, [a] focus away from heavy, large meals to fresher alternatives.’’
Dr Mortimer said that, although takeaway and restaurant food still claimed 31 per cent of Australia’s shopping dollars, it was a very soft market. He said a focus on healthy lifestyles and smaller meal sizes was changing the way fast food was sold.
‘‘We are demanding larger options and away from that meat and three vege idea," he said. "Not just healthier options but also Thai and Italian meals [or] Vietnamese meals,’’ he said.
Delivery Hero chief executive C.J. Foo said he had seen increasing interest in more diverse, more nutritious meals. In the ACT, the most popular meals ordered from his fast-food delivery company were Thai, Chinese and Indian.
Nationally, dishes such as green curry, teriyaki salmon and souvlaki had been increasingly popular in Australia’s major cities. ‘‘We did find that, in the past year, pizza was the most popular delivery takeaway option, but now there seems be an interest in a broader range of cuisine,’’ Mr Foo said.
He said there had been a definite trend over the past five years towards healthier food and those restaurants advertising fresher ingredients had an increase in sales. ‘‘There is an increased perception of the need for healthy food and I think that carries across in the messaging,’’ he said.
There was still a way to go though; Australia had 905 McDonald's restaurants, on-par with the US on a per capita basis. The ACT had the highest number of McDonald's outlets in Australia, on a per capita basis, being host to 19 across the territory.
A spokeswoman for McDonald's said Australians had taken advantage of the healthier options available on their menus. ‘‘One in three Happy Meals sold in Australia includes a healthier choice of either a grilled chicken snack warp, apple slices, low-fat flavoured milk, fruit juice or water,’’ she said