New Zealand produces great food, but do we eat enough of it? Phil Taylor tucks into a new survey which reveals our erratic eating habits and who is missing out.
We're worried about plastic packaging but we don't give a hoot about sustainable farming.
We're suckers for diets - especially the young - even though we probably know they're bad in the long run.
We know we should be eating more fruit and veges but we really love chocolate and lollies, not to mention salty snacks.
Alas, the biggest snapshot of our eating habits in a decade has us nailed as a contradictory and peripatetic nation of grazers who should pull up its collective culinary socks. Or, better yet, take a good long look at the state of our supermarket trolley.
These are but some of the takeaways (!) revealed in the Bayer Food Focus survey, a joint project between the worldwide life sciences and pharmaceuticals company and the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation.
The online survey of 1346 people, selected to reflect New Zealand's gender, age, and geographical and ethnic mix, found that only about half of us are eating the recommended minimum of five fruit and veges a day.
Most said they knew how to prepare a healthy meal but a third said they were too busy to do so. And the younger they were the busier they reckoned they were.
Half said healthy food was too expensive, and that proportion grew among the young, Māori, Pasifika and Asian respondents.
As for contrariness, knowing food was produced in an environmentally sustainable way was very important to only 27 per cent, and just 21 per cent were hot about the use of modern farming techniques, even though the amount of plastic packaging used on food was most likely - if anything - to keep us awake at night, with 42 per cent rating it extremely or very important.
Boomers seemed to care least about environmental sustainability when choosing food, with just 18 per cent of the 55-plus bracket rating it very or extremely important. That is half the percentage in the youngest age bracket, the 15-34-year-olds.
Most (62 per cent) know the foods they should eat more of and nearly all (94 per cent) reckon they know how to prepare a healthy meal, but the data shows that when we buy, taste (82 per cent) is king, followed by price, healthfulness and convenience, with environmental sustainability bringing up the rear among the five factors in the survey.
Three-quarters admit to comfort eating, the average pulled up by women (82 per cent) and the young (90 per cent for people aged 15-34). Chocolate and lollies were top, followed by the likes of burgers, chicken nuggets and savoury snacks.
Our love of junk food is a handy segue to … diets. A quarter reported being on a weight-loss regime in the past 12 months. Most common among diets not specifically aimed at losing weight are vegetarian and low-carb plans.
The results, says Herald columnist and food and health commentator Niki Bezzant, exposes some intriguing disconnects. "I think this goes to show food is so deeply tied to human nature.
"For example, we know we should eat more veges, but most of us are not doing it. I also think it's interesting that people really care about plastic packaging, and it plays into their decision making around food, but they're not really that concerned about farming practices, which you could argue is more important for the bigger environmental picture."
Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition at AUT, is encouraged that at least younger people are becoming aware of environmental sustainability and its link to food choices. "I think we should be thinking about that more, especially for our grandchildren."
But she sees a problem in the large number who think modern farming technology is unimportant. "Maybe more people should watch Country Calendar and see what modern farming technology does for protecting the environment, and think about what regenerative agriculture means.
"They are all technologies that look after the land, which is our most precious asset.
"I think we need more understanding about the integration of health of the planet and health of people because the two go together," says Rush, who in 2014 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order Of Merit for services to health.
New Zealand produces enough good food energy to feed five times the population but most of it is exported, while we import much of what is not so good for us - packaged, processed and ultra-processed foods that are high in refined carbohydrates, salt and sugar.
"We do produce excellent food in New Zealand," says Rush, "We could be self-reliant but we are not."
Though it was reassuring most people know what food is better and worse for them, it was disappointing only half reported eating the recommended five-plus fruit and veges a day.
Nutritionists agree access and price are factors.
It seems wrong that vegetables and fruit grown here are overpriced, says Rush. She believes that is a significant factor in people choosing cheaper filler foods "that keep people happy and satiated".
Rush favours a sugar tax and finding a way to make vegetables and fruit more accessible, such as taking off GST for fresh, canned and frozen types. "Frozen vegetables can have better nutritional value than vegetables that have been left on the bench too long."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has ruled out a sugar tax but says food and drink labelling needs to be overhauled.
And while the Government acknowledges there is too much sugar in processed foods, it favours encouraging the food sector to reduce it rather than impose taxes.
Rush believes improving the national diet and health "has to be from the top down as well as the bottom up".
"We have better principles for looking after the food of our animals," she says. "We regard it as important to grow healthy animals but we don't seem to pay that attention to the food that we feed New Zealanders."
On a recent trip to China, government diet booklets in Rush's hotel recommended eating 14 different foods a day. "That's good advice because it makes you think about how much variety [is] necessary for a good diet."
Across the Tasman, Australians are being urged to eat at least seven vegetables and fruits a day in order to get the required vitamins and minerals. "I think we need to put more emphasis on the coloured vegetables and eating different vegetables," says Rush.
Just over half of those surveyed said healthy foods were too expensive, the proportion increased to 62 per cent among Māori and 83 per cent among Pasifika respondents.
A recent Child Poverty Action Group report said families not having enough money to buy these foods was a severe and growing problem that needed a planned response.
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Brittani Beavis, an independent Māori dietitian, says it should come as no surprise that Māori families disproportionately may fall into this category.
"The idea that [more] Māori than non-Māori perceive healthy eating to be more expensive is, among other causes, a direct reflection on the effects of colonisation. Colonisation caused the dispossession of almost 95 per cent of land and resources as well as forcing Māori into the major cities, resulting in unemployment, employment disparities and this impacts on household income."
That history led to Māori being more likely to live in poverty and, in turn, have low-cost diets which were energy-dense and nutrient-poor, says Beavis.
This was unfair and contrary to the partnership principle of the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) and more needed to be done to support families struggling to afford healthy food.
Diets are the devil
Dietitians see a problem in the high proportion of people who diet specifically to lose weight.
Almost a quarter of those surveyed had been on a weight-loss diet in the past year, a proportion that rose to 34 per cent for the 15-34 age bracket.
"It can lead to diet yo-yo-ing," warns ABC Nutrition's Angela Berrill. They are often restrictive, which can set up an all-or-nothing mentality.
"That can lead to weight cycling, which isn't good for your health." Berrill advises focussing on healthy behaviours rather than weight.
"Look at including fruit and veges into your diet rather than taking things out. Carbs are not the devil but eat the good ones, the whole grains rather than highly refined ones like white bread, cakes, lollies, sugary drinks.
And, she recommends brown rice, which is less processed and has more fibre than white rice.
Jess Campbell describes herself as "a non-diet nutritionist" for good reason. "Diets are the devil," she says.
Any form of restriction is going to drive "disharmonious eating", says Campbell, of Body Balance Nutrition. "We want people to be at ease with eating, consume what is both nourishing and satisfying, and I think the satisfaction factor is what is missing from a lot of our public health messaging.
"Diets have a 90 per cent failure rate and I think it is that type of product where the consumer feels they are to blame when it doesn't work. A huge amount of shaming is involved."
Campbell says using BMI as a gauge and a focus on weight loss is not working.
"We need to be strengthening health-promoting behaviours. If we take away weight loss as the goal and just promote wide varied diets, engagement in joyful movement, and support people to establish social connections, quit smoking, reduce alcohol, I think we'd see a vast improvement."