Is quick, cheap food killing us?

The rise of cheap fast food means that dinner has never been more convenient – but the cost to Aussie families is proving significant. What’s behind this hunger for quick and easy meals, and what is it doing to our health?

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writer

Staff writer

It’s official. Australia is now ranked as one of the most obese nations in the developed world. Almost two in three Australian adults and one in four kids are overweight or obese. With some of the most abundant access to fresh food in the world, we’re still choosing quick and cheap over healthy. But what’s driving us into the greasy processed arms of our fast food options?

Good intentions vs. our lifestyle

Our increasing girths may weigh heavy on the minds of many, but the balance between healthy eating, convenience and budget is still a very real struggle for many of us.

Katherine Baqleh, Accredited Practising Dietitian at Health Victory Nutrition Experts, says while the statistics may be alarming, there’s a bigger story at play here.

‘Fast foods are high in the unhealthy fats, salt and added and refined sugars,’ she explains.

‘Because of our busy lives, people turn to fast food over healthier home-cooked meals. This may not be news to many, but the rates of medical issues such as diabetes, heart disease and cancers are increasing at an alarming rate.

‘But one of the main factors that can be improved is a person’s lifestyle.’

And it’s true: in Australia we seem to have the best of healthy eating intentions, even if they often don’t seem to translate to real-life eating habits. According to a comprehensive study by Ipsos on our attitude towards food, the top five food priorities for Australians last year were,

  • Eating more fresh fruit and vegetables (40 per cent),
  • Smaller portion sizes (31 per cent),
  • Reducing sugar intake from food (24 per cent),
  • Eating healthier snacks (23 per cent) and
  • Cutting down on fat (23 per cent).

A bigger incentive

It’s no sin to opt for take out once in a while, but if your diet has fallen into a poor-nutrient pattern then one way to motivate change is to better understand what we’re putting in our bodies. Here are a few things to consider when you next feel like reaching for the cheaper, fast food alternative.

1. It’s addictive.

One study found that fast food is ‘a potentially addictive substance that is most likely to create dependence in vulnerable populations’. If you’re consuming fast food once a week or more, you could be more dependent on it than you think, and find it harder to make healthier eating choices.

2. It’s affecting your kids.

Childhood and adolescent obesity rates have skyrocketed in the past three decades. Research shows a clear link between the advertisement of non-nutritious foods and the rate of childhood obesity, which means your kids are vulnerable to advertising that pushes them into making poor food choices. During these years you’re the gatekeeper to their plate. You have the power to make better choices for them.

3. Even ‘healthy’ fast food isn’t a healthy choice.

Supermarkets and fast food chains are falling over themselves to accommodate increased consumer demand for healthier options, which is great. But these foods are often heavily processed meaning they’re pre-cooked, frozen, chopped and re-heated in order to last longer on shelves.

While lightly processed foods such as frozen, unseasoned veggies can be better for you than fresh in some instances, processed foods are often hiding fats, sugars, salts and chemical stabilisers to keep them edible for longer.

Make your #onechange

Looking for a fast but nutritious addition to your dinner? Frozen spinach can contain more vitamin C than fresh spinach left at room temperature. Add it to your omelette, risotto or smoothie.

4. It’s costing you more long-term.

Besides the individual health risks and poorer quality of life associated with obesity, there are huge direct and indirect economic and societal burdens. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the annual cost of obesity – including heathcare system costs, loss of productivity and carers’ costs – was estimated at around $58 billion.

‘Carrying excess weight increases the risk of a variety of health issues,’ says Katherine.

‘It doubles the likelihood of depression, increases the risk of comorbidities associated with obesity and as a result, more visits to hospitals and GPs than a non-obese person, worsening the pressure placed on hospitals.’

Other hidden costs include increased sick days, loss of productivity and reduced performance.

So while it might seem cheaper to grab a pizza on your way home from work, the long-term costs could be astronomical.

Tips for making healthier choices today

Making healthier choices is achievable even with a busy schedule. Katherine suggests easy ways to reduce your fast food and increase your nutrients.

  • Go for grainy or wholemeal bread
  • Avoid butter or mayo on your roll or sandwich
  • Avoid bacon
  • Go for thin and crispy pizza bases over of thick pan-fried options
  • Choose minestrone or clear soup instead of creamy soups and laksas
  • Swap out creamy pasta sauces for tomato-based options
  • Ask for grilled instead of fried meats and fish
  • Trim the fat and skin off meats
  • Opt for less cheese in wraps
  • Swap out your side of chips for salad or veggies
  • If nothing but take-away will do, go for chains like Mad Mex and Subway – both allow for great variety in their menus.

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writers come from a range of backgrounds including health, wellbeing, music, tech, culture and the arts. They spend their time researching the latest data and trends in the health market to deliver up-to-date information, helping everyday Australians live healthier lives. This is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.