It’s no secret our diet can have a major impact on our health. But our new umbrella review, published this week in Advances in Nutrition, provides compelling evidence that pro-inflammatory diets increase the risk of 27 chronic diseases and premature death. An umbrella review is a review of multiple reviews, and is among the highest levels of evidence.
What’s more, reducing inflammation by eating better could cut our risk of developing certain chronic diseases.
A pro-inflammatory diet is one that, over the long-term, may lead to increased inflammation in the body. Such a diet often includes high amounts of commercially baked goods, fried foods and fatty meats, and at the same time is low in fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.
We reviewed and pooled data from 15 meta-analyses, which is a type of study that summarises data from lots of individual studies. All up, we looked at 38 health outcomes from four million people from across the world.
We found strong evidence for a link between pro-inflammatory diets and heart attacks, premature death and certain cancers including bowel cancer, pancreatic cancer, respiratory cancers and oral cancers. There was also evidence pro-inflammatory diets were linked with depression.
By bringing together data from populations all over the world, we were able to provide a comprehensive and reliable overview of the research to date. We also looked at the strength of the evidence of studies and found that for most outcomes, evidence was limited, highlighting the need for more research.
Because of the type of study we did, we were unable to determine cause and effect, so we can’t conclusively say pro-inflammatory diets cause these chronic diseases yet. But we found clear evidence a pro-inflammatory diet is linked with an increased risk of developing certain chronic diseases and premature death.
But what is inflammation, and what role does our diet play?
Inflammation is part of our body’s natural defence processes. It’s our immune system’s response to an irritant, be that an infection or injury, and is often a welcome sign our body is working to protect us. For example, swelling when you roll your ankle delivers resources to help repair the damage.
But when inflammation can’t be turned off, this process may start to work against us.
Persistent low levels of inflammation (known as chronic inflammation) can be problematic and is linked to premature death and conditions including coronary heart disease and depression, to name a few.
We can detect whether chronic inflammation exists by a simple blood test that looks at levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. Our diet is one factor that influences levels of these inflammatory markers, among many.
Take the “Western diet”, for example, which consists of calorie-dense, ultra-processed foods and is low in fruits, vegetables and other plant-foods. This type of dietary pattern has been linked to higher levels of inflammation.
Conversely, healthy dietary patterns have been linked to lower inflammatory markers. This includes the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil and oily fish, and low in ultra-processed, refined foods.
The potential for diets to be pro- or anti-inflammatory can be measured using a tool known as the Dietary Inflammatory Index.
The index takes into account a number of nutrients, compounds, and foods that have been identified in research as having either anti- or pro-inflammatory properties.
Using foods to fight inflammation
Despite promising marketing claims you might see online, there’s no magic supplement or superfood to combat all our inflammation woes.
Instead, you should focus on improving your overall diet quality, rather than on a single food or nutrient. This is because many nutrients and foods interact with one another and can work together to improve inflammation.
As for what to eat?
- Load up your plate with a wide variety of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes, like chickpeas and lentils. These foods are high in anti-inflammatory nutrients, such as fibre and a range of vitamins. They also contain unique “phytochemicals”, such as polyphenols which are plant compounds that have potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects
- Flavour your food liberally with herbs and spices, and sip on tea and coffee regularly. These are also great sources of polyphenols
- Enjoy oily fish regularly, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel, which are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids
- Reduce your intake of foods that may fuel inflammation. These include foods high in trans and saturated fats, found in commercially baked goods, fried foods and fatty meats.
Given almost half of us live with a chronic disease, and many more are likely at risk, adopting an anti-inflammatory diet could be very beneficial for your health, and may help you live longer too.
As the new year starts, you may be planning to tackle COVID-related weight gain. Before you do, consider that it may be better to focus on your eating patterns, rather than looking to the latest fad diet.
Emotional eating and weight gain
A survey of 13,829 Australian adults found one in five reported drinking more alcohol during COVID. In a survey of over 22,000 drinkers in the United Kingdom, one-quarter reported drinking more than usual over the previous week.
In Italy, of 602 people surveyed about changes in their eating habits during isolation, almost half said they sought “comfort foods” and ate more to feel better.
Eating and drinking alcohol boosts the release of “feel good” chemicals in your brain, making you feel better in the short term.
According to a global WebMD poll on self-reported weight gain during the pandemic, about one-quarter of people in Hong Kong and Germany reported gaining weight, roughly 45% in Australia, Canada and the UK, and over 60% in Brazil and Italy.
United States respondents who reported putting on weight were asked to estimate how much weight they thought they had gained. Some 49% said less than 3 kilograms, 26% said 3-4kg, and 25% reported more than 4.5kg.
Participants believed a lack of exercise, stress eating and drinking more alcohol were contributing factors.
It’s not just about weight
While weight gain can increase your risk of health problems, recent research suggests having healthy eating patterns is more important than weight.
A US study of 210,000 adults followed for up to 32 years found that irrespective of body weight, having a high diet quality was associated with lower risk of heart disease and stroke compared to having low diet quality.
A “high-quality” diet includes lots of variety within the basic food groups of vegetables, fruit and wholegrains, and includes limited junk food. A “low-quality diet” is the opposite.
Similarly, a Swedish study followed 79,000 adults over 21 years and found that among people with a higher body weight, also having a high-quality diet was protective against dying from any cause. But having a body weight in the healthy range was not protective among those who had a low-quality diet.
4 tips to improve your diet and beat COVID kilos
Home cooking and eating together
If you spent more time cooking and eating meals at home during the pandemic, keep doing it. As well as being better for you than eating take-away foods and ready-made meals, it promotes well-being.
A study of 160 adults found people who ate healthy foods cooked at home experienced more intense positive emotions and worried less, compared to people who ate away from home.
For adolescents, a review found frequent family meals were associated higher self-esteem and other indicators of better mental health.
Eat more vegetables and fruit
A US study of 133,468 adults found those who increased their vegetable and fruit intakes lost weight. Every extra daily serve of fruit was associated with a weight loss of 250 grams over a four-year period, and every extra daily serve of vegetables with a loss of 110 grams. People who ate more berries, apples, pears, cauliflower, green leafy vegetables and carrots experienced greater weight loss.
This has well-being benefits too. For example, an Australian study which followed 12,385 adults from 2007 to 2013 and found greater life satisfaction, happiness and well-being among those who increased their intake of vegetables and fruit.
Try buying bigger quantities and a greater variety of vegetables and fruit when you do your grocery shopping.
Keep a food diary
Recording what you eat and drink and then checking the kilojoule and nutrient content helps boost your knowledge of what’s in various foods and drinks. It also increases awareness of your eating habits, especially snacking. You can use an app or pen and paper.
Once you’ve recorded your food and drink intake for a few days, you will notice areas to target for improvement.
You might also consider keeping a mood diary. This can help you identify other ways to improve your diet quality. The mood you’re in affects your food choices and your food choices affect your mood. Keeping track of both food and mood helps to identify triggers for eating.
Plan meals and snacks ahead
Check what ingredients you already have and plan meals and snacks to use these up. Next write a grocery list, just for what you need. Even if you’re staying home, prepare your lunch and snacks for the day in advance. This saves you time, money, limits food waste and reduces the number of times you have to think about food.
Visit the No Money No Time website to check your diet quality score using our free healthy eating quiz and find simple, inexpensive and healthy recipes.
If you’d like to learn more about food, nutrition and weight management, enrol in our free online course, The Science of Weight Loss – Dispelling Diet Myths, which starts on January 27.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has today released new guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Under the new recommendations, healthy adults should drink no more than ten standard drinks a week, and no more than four on any one day.
I’m chair of the Alcohol Working Committee that for the past four years has worked on revising the Australian drinking guidelines.
These replace the previous version published in 2009, and come at the end of a year upended by a pandemic, and just before the festive season. That might sound like a curious time to release the alcohol guidelines, but it actually makes sense.
During the pandemic, some people have been drinking less because they are going less often to pubs. Others are drinking more at home. Of these, some have turned to drinking for stress relief and run into major strife with it.
But these guidelines are not just for the pandemic year. They are to help all Australians make informed decisions about how much they drink, at any time.
Alcohol is a key cause of injuries, including road trauma, falls, burns, violence and self-harm. It contributes to drownings and other short-term harms. But much of the damage alcohol causes is less visible, and less immediate.
In the past decade, international research has shown even low levels of consumption are linked with an increase in several common cancers, including those of the breast and bowel. And we’ve known for a long time that alcohol consumption can contribute to high blood pressure, liver disease and many other conditions. The risk increases as more alcohol is consumed.
So, in line with its mission to provide robust evidence-based health advice, NHMRC has now released a set of three guidelines so Australians can make informed decisions about their health.
What do the new guidelines say?
The first guideline recommends healthy adult men and women consume no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and no more than four on any given day.
The less you drink, the lower your risk. If this advice is followed, there is a less than one in 100 chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition across your lifetime.
Guidelines two and three concern people under the age of 18, and women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or breastfeeding. In all these cases, the recommendation is to drink no alcohol at all.
The guidelines were developed by a group of 14 health experts, including clinicians, public health professionals, researchers, and consumer representatives.
But doesn’t light drinking have a protective effect? The jury is out
After a thorough review of research evidence, NHMRC’s Alcohol Working Committee released draft guidelines for public consultation in December 2019. We received many responses, some asserting the guidelines didn’t go far enough, and others claiming they went too far.
Some studies mentioned suggested a possible protective effect of low-level consumption of alcohol, in particular against coronary heart disease.
These issues were scrutinised by our committee. The evidence for a protective effect has been challenged by research in recent years. Some researchers dispute its existence.
But at the least, any protective effect is not as strong as previously thought. Nonetheless, the guidelines do allow for a potential protective effect – if they hadn’t, the recommended maximum would have been far lower! Potential protective effects were balanced against the increased risk of certain cancers.
These guidelines are not trying to tell you what you can and can’t do. Rather, we’re providing advice on how you can reduce your health risks from drinking alcohol. That way, we can all make informed decisions in our daily lives.
Over the next few years, science and technology will have a vital role in supporting Australia’s economy as it strives to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
At Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, we’ve identified opportunities that can help businesses drive economic recovery.
We examined how the pandemic has created or intensified opportunities for economic growth across six sectors benefiting from science and technology. These are food and agribusiness, energy, health, mineral resources, digital and manufacturing.
While some aspects of Australian healthcare are currently digitised, system-wide digital health integration could improve the quality of care and save money.
Doctors caring for patients with chronic diseases or complex conditions could digitally coordinate care routines. This could streamline patient care by avoiding consultation double-ups and providing a more holistic view of patient health.
We also see potential for more efficient healthcare delivery through medical diagnostic tests that are more portable and non-invasive. Such tests, supported by artificial intelligence and smart data storage approaches, would allow faster disease detection and monitoring.
There’s also opportunity for developing specialised components such as 3D-printed prosthetics, dental and bone implants.
Despite a short-term plateau in energy consumption caused by COVID-19 globally, the demand for energy will continue to grow.
Through clean energy exports and energy initiatives aligned with decarbonisation goals, Australia can help meet global energy demands. Energy-efficient technologies offer immediate reduced energy costs, reduced carbon emissions and less demand on the energy grid. They also create local jobs.
Innovating with food and agribusiness
The food and agribusiness sector is a prominent contributor to Australia’s economy and supports regional and rural prosperity.
Australia could earn revenue from the local production and export of more sustainable proteins. This might include plant-based proteins such as pea and lupins, or aquaculture products such as farmed prawns and seaweed.
We could also offer more high-value health and well-being foods. Examples include fortified foods and products free from gluten, lactose and other allergens.
Automating minerals processes
Even before COVID-19 struck, the mineral resources sector was facing rising costs and declining ore grades. It’s also dealing with climate change impacts such as droughts, bushfires, floods, and social pressures to reduce environmental harm.
Several innovative solutions could help make the sector more productive and sustainable. For instance, increasing automation and remote mining (which Australia already excels in) could achieve improved safety for workers, more productivity and business continuity.
Also, investing in advanced technologies that can generate higher quality data on mineral character and composition could improve yields and minimise environmental harm.
COVID-19 has escalated concerns around Australia’s supply chain fragility – take the toilet paper shortages earlier in the pandemic. Expanding local manufacturing efforts could create jobs and increase Australia’s earning potential.
This is especially true for mineral processing and manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, space technology and defence. Our local manufacturing will need to adapt quickly to changes in supply needs, ideally through the use of advanced designs and technology.
In April and May this year, Australian businesses made huge strides in adopting consumer and business digital technologies. One study estimated five years’ worth of progress occurred in those eight weeks. Hundreds of thousands of businesses moved their work online.
Over the next two years, Australian businesses could become more efficient and adaptable by further monetising the data they already collect. For example, applying mobile sensors, robotics and machine learning techniques could help us make better resource decisions in agriculture.
Similarly, businesses could share more data throughout the supply chain, including with customers and competitors. For instance, increased data sharing among renewable energy providers and customers could improve the monitoring, forecasting and reliability of energy supply.
Making the right plans and investments now will determine Australia’s recovery and resilience in the future.
Humans (and our ancestors) have been processing food for at least 1.8 million years. Roasting, drying, grinding and other techniques made food more nutritious, durable and tasty. This helped our ancestors to colonise diverse habitats, and then develop settlements and civilisations.
Many traditional foods used in cooking today are processed in some way, such as grains, cheeses, dried fish and fermented vegetables. Processing itself is not the problem.
Only much more recently has a different type of food processing emerged: one that is more extensive, and uses new chemical and physical techniques. This is called ultra-processing, and the resulting products ultra-processed foods.
To make these foods, cheap ingredients such as starches, vegetable oils and sugars, are combined with cosmetic additives like colours, flavours and emulsifiers. Think sugary drinks, confectionery, mass-produced breads, snack foods, sweetened dairy products and frozen desserts.
Unfortunately, these foods are terrible for our health. And we’re eating more of them than ever before, partially because of aggressive marketing and lobbying by “Big Food”.
Ultra-processed foods are harming our health
So concludes our recent literature review. We found that more ultra-processed foods in the diet associates with higher risks of obesity, heart disease and stroke, type-2 diabetes, cancer, frailty, depression and death.
These harms can be caused by the foods’ poor nutritional profile, as many are high in added sugars, salt and trans-fats. Also, if you tend to eat more ultra-processed foods, it means you probably eat fewer fresh and less-processed foods.
Industrial processing itself can also be harmful. For example, certain food additives can disrupt our gut bacteria and trigger inflammation, while plasticisers in packaging can interfere with our hormonal system.
Certain features of ultra-processed foods also promote over-consumption. Product flavours, aromas and mouthfeel are designed to make these foods ultra-tasty, and perhaps even addictive.
Ultra-processed foods also harm the environment. For example, food packaging generates much of the plastic waste that enters marine ecosystems.
And yet, we’re eating more and more of them
In our latest study, published in August, we found ultra-processed food sales are booming nearly everywhere in the world.
Sales are highest in rich countries like Australia, the United States and Canada. They are rising rapidly in middle-income countries like China, South Africa and Brazil, which are highly populated. The scale of dietary change and harms to health are therefore likely immense.
‘Big Food’ is driving consumption
We also asked: what explains the global rise in ultra-processed food sales? Growing incomes, more people living in cities, and working families seeking convenience are a few factors that contribute.
However, it’s also clear “Big Food” corporations are driving ultra-processed food consumption globally — think Coca-Cola, Nestlé and McDonald’s. Sales growth is lower in countries where such corporations have a limited presence.
Globalisation has allowed these corporations to make huge investments in their overseas operations. The Coca-Cola System, for example, now includes 900 bottling plants worldwide, distributing 2 billion servings every day.
As Big Food globalises, their advertising and promotion becomes widespread. New digital technologies, such as gaming, are used to target children. By collecting large amounts of personal data online, companies can even target their advertising at us as individuals.
Supermarkets are now spreading throughout the developing world, provisioning ultra-processed foods at scale, and at low prices. Where supermarkets don’t exist, other distribution strategies are used. For example, Nestlé uses its “door-to-door” salesforce to reach thousands of poor households in Brazil’s urban slums.
Rising consumption also reflects Big Food’s political power to undermine public health policies. This includes lobbying policymakers, making political donations, funding favourable research, and partnerships with community organisations.
Here’s how things can change
The evidence that ultra-processed foods are harming our health and the planet is clear. We must now consider using a variety of strategies to decrease consumption. This includes adopting new laws and regulations, for example by using taxation, marketing restrictions and removing these products from schools.
We cannot rely on industry-preferred responses such as product reformulation alone. After all, reformulated ultra-processed foods are usually still ultra-processed.
Further, simply telling individuals to “be more responsible” is unlikely to work, when Big Food spends billions every year marketing unhealthy products to undermine that responsibility.
Should dietary guidelines now strongly advise people to avoid ultra-processed foods? Brazil and other Latin American countries are already doing this.
And for us as individuals the advice is simple — avoid ultra-processed foods altogether.
Phillip Baker, Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, and Priscila Machado, Research Fellow, School of Exercise & Nutrition Science, Faculty of Health, Deakin University
With Victoria’s declaration of a state of disaster and imposition of Stage 4 restrictions, many Melburnians have returned to panic buying. Supermarket shelves across the city have been stripped of canned goods, fresh vegetables and meat.
The meat buying, at least, makes some sense.
After aged care homes, meat-processing facilities have been a major contributor to Victoria’s COVID-19 outbreak. Hundreds of coronavirus cases have been linked to about a dozen sites, with the biggest outbreaks at those in Melbourne’s outer western and northern surburbs.
There were expectations following the state government’s lockdown announcement on Sunday that these facilities might be closed completely, along with the other business restrictions announced on Monday.
That didn’t happen. But the state’s 70-plus meat-processing facilities will be required to reduce their production capacity by one-third.
They must also implement, in the words of premier Daniel Andrews, “some of the most stringent safety protocols that have been ever put in place in any industrial setting”, including workers dressing “as if they were a health worker – gloves and gowns, masks and shields.”
This is going to affect the supply of meat to Victorian supermarkets, and prices. But thankfully not for long.
Why meat processors?
Processing meat is the opposite of an assembly line. It’s a disassembly line, the equivalent of auto workers pulling apart cars – removing the wheels, doors, seats, engine and so on – to sell the parts. Now imagine each car is slightly different, and must be taken apart in a slightly different way, at fast pace.
Automating such work is difficult. It is complex and intensive manual labour. Lots of people work close together, in a hard environment, for long hours, in cold and dry spaces. These factors make it easy for COVID-19 to spread.
The Victorian government’s directive that meat-processing facilities reduce output by one-third is to ensure workplace changes such as gaps between shifts, more physical distancing, and more attention to measures such as wearing personal protective equipment and not sharing cutting equipment.
So production will go at a slower pace. Output will be lower, and the per-unit cost of packaging meat products for consumers will be higher.
Synchronising the system
Quality and price are key purchasing decisions for most meat shoppers, and the meat industry has been geared to providing fresh produce at lowest cost.
Getting your favourite beef, lamb, chicken and pork cuts to your local supermarket or neighbourhood butcher is a complex game. Meat processing and distribution centres work out how much to produce, where to deliver and when to do it with great precision, planning up to 90 days ahead. They must synchronise supplies from farmers with demand from retailers.
Think of the system’s smooth operation as being like keeping a roomful of clocks synchronised.
If one clock fails, no problem. You can fix it. But what if a handful more clocks fail before you can fix it, and then dozens more fail? In a short time there will be so many faulty clocks that coordination is compromised. Eventually you won’t even know what the right time is.
Reducing capacity in one or two abattoirs for a few days could be worked around with minimal effects to consumers. But there’s no quick fix to reducing capacity in all of them for six weeks.
Supplies for some meat products will almost certainly be lower, and prices could increase. This is most likely to occur for the most common and popular meat cuts, like T-bone steaks or chicken drumsticks. If your preference is offal or giblets, though, you may not have a problem.
What is the good news?
Yes, there is good news.
First, thanks to refrigerated transport, meat processors in other states can help meet lower production in Victoria. The industry has some flexibility to move from north to south, from west to east.
Second, supermarkets have been quick to bring restrictions back to prevent the panic buying and hoarding that make shortages even worse. Coles and Woolworths have already imposed two-pack limits on meat packages (and other products).
Third, to hoard meat you need freezer capacity, and it’s quite possible those disposed to stockpiling still have frozen meat from the first COVID-19 wave.
Fourth, supermarkets and hundreds of smaller operators such as butchers will be affected in different ways at different times. Finding what you want may simply require looking in more than one shop.
Fourth, there are options. Not just between different fresh products such as beef, chicken, pork, lamb and fish, but between preserved, frozen and canned alternatives.
So it might be just a bit harder to have your preferred choice of meat for dinner in the coming days. But the situation won’t be as dire as some fear.
Flavio Romero Macau, Senior Lecturer in Supply Chain Management and Global Logistics, Edith Cowan University and Ferry Jie, Asssociate Professor in Supply Chain and Logistics Management, Deputy Director, Centre for Innovative Practice, Edith Cowan University
Most countries have a staple food: native, fast-growing and easy-to-store plants high in carbohydrates.
Australia is an exception – we do not have a staple food. But native grasslands provide ample opportunity to produce grains. In fact, Aboriginal people once used native grasses to make bread, and there is evidence they were the world’s first bakers.
We argue it’s time to resurrect Australia’s ancient breadmaking tradition. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why.
Australia’s ancient grain
In an area known as the Panara, located in a ring around central Australia, Aboriginal people used sophisticated fire-based techniques to manage grasslands and harvest grain. They collected the grain in bulk several times a year, then stored it in the off-season.
The grains harvested were from native grasses – species well suited to growing in local conditions. They were ground, mixed with water then baked in hot coals, to produce a bread resembling damper.
So why doesn’t this collection and preparation of native grains still happen today? There’s no clear answer, however preparing seed for food was very time- and labour-intensive. Also, as Aboriginal groups were massacred or forcibly removed from Country, such practices, and associated knowledges, largely disappeared.
The benefits of staple food
A native, staple Australian crop would allow us to grow food suited to our environment.
The benefits of producing food from native grasslands are well known. Grasslands need limited, if any, fertiliser, no pesticides, and can tap into groundwater so they don’t need irrigation or land cultivation.
While native grasslands yield less seed than conventional cropping systems (more on this later), fewer resources are needed to produce it. What’s more, grasslands simultaneously provide essential environmental “services” including supporting plant and animal diversity, covering bare ground, and enabling water infiltration, recycling of nutrients and carbon sequestration.
Australia’s total agricultural production is currently worth about A$60.8 billion a year, and we export about 65% of what we produce. A staple Australian food might not contribute directly to the value of our agricultural exports, at least in the short term. But it may reduce the cost of pest control by increasing habitat for beneficial predators. It also represents a low-risk venture that provides returns to growers who want to increase the native vegetation on their properties.
We are not advocating the wholesale adoption of native grasses as a staple food crop in Australia. But it would be prudent to investigate how native grasses grow and produce seed, to better understand how current farming practices might be improved.
Connection to Country
Returning to native grasslands would provide a way to understand Indigenous perspectives on looking after Country.
Indigenous land managers used burning techniques to grow and maintain local grass crops. Grasslands are culturally and spiritually significant to Indigenous Australians. Their protection and regeneration could create new business opportunities for Aboriginal people and promote reconciliation.
A number of grasses were used by Aboriginal people, all of which might be a good staple food for Australia. The best approach would be to grow a range of species matched with local customs, soil types, rainfall and season.
Growing, processing, and making bread from native grass will involve new technologies and challenge current methods.
This productivity can be increased by identifying and cultivating the plants producing more seed than their neighbours. These individuals have the best chance of producing the next generation of high-yield plants.
Processing of native grains presents another challenge. The current grain-processing system receives bulk deliveries of wheat with known milling requirements at a set time of year. The timing, size and milling requirements of native grain deliveries would be far less predictable.
To be efficient, modern machine-processing of grain requires that the seed is clean, uniform in size and is not mixed with other types of seeds.
While the commercial process of making flour is relatively inflexible, in contrast, an experienced baker can work with many types of flour and adjust the dough as they go. This is how Aboriginal people baked loaves from native seed for thousands of years. Creating unique products from native grain will require flexible baking methods, including making them by hand.
In recent years, “ancient grains” such as quinoa, chia and spelt have grown in popularity among food consumers. These crops grow on their own and have been genetically improved for quality, so are relatively consistent when sold as seed, flour or in a baked product.
But Australia’s native grain products may contain multiple species that are grown and harvested together. So at the point of sale, consumers would have to accept that every loaf or biscuit or cake may have a different taste, and contain several types of grain.
Who earns the dough?
When developing native grain as an Australian staple food, we must also be careful not to exploit the knowledge of native grain production at the expense of the traditional caretakers of the knowledge and species. This would be repeating the mistakes of the past.
Native grain production offers potential economic gains. These should go first to the traditional custodians, countering current trends where only 1% of Australia’s native food industry is generated by Indigenous people.
Angela Pattison, Research scientist at Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, Associate Professor, University of Sydney
COVID-19 has significantly affected our collective mental health.
For many people, social disconnection, financial strain, increased obligations in the home and ongoing uncertainty have created distress – and with it, a need for new ways of coping.
One way people may choose to cope with stress is through the use of alcohol.
We’re now starting to understand the degree to which alcohol use has increased in Australia during COVID-19. While the data aren’t alarming so far, they suggest women are drinking at higher levels than usual during the pandemic, more so than men.
This trend is likely linked to the levels of stress and anxiety women are feeling at the moment – which, research suggests, are disproportionate to the distress men are experiencing.
Alcohol consumption and COVID-19
Early reports of increased alcohol purchasing raised the alarm that we might see an increase in alcohol use across the population during lockdown.
However, recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests overall, alcohol consumption remained relatively stable during April. Only 14% of Australians reported increased use of alcohol in the previous month.
But women are over-represented in this group. Some 18% of women reported increased alcohol use in the previous month, compared with only 10.8% of men.
Similarly, preliminary results from our COVID-19 mental health survey of 1,200 Australians in April found a significantly higher proportion of women had increased their alcohol intake: 31.8%, versus 22.5% of men.
Why are we seeing this disparity between women and men? The answers may lie in what we know about why women drink, and in the disproportionate burden of stress women are facing as a result of COVID-19.
Women tend to drink for different reasons to men
In Australia in 2016, 14% of men and 7% of women drank alcohol to risky levels.
Although fewer women than men drink alcohol regularly, alcohol consumption among women has increased in the past decade, particularly in middle-aged and older women. This mirrors international trends that suggest women may be catching up to men in terms of their alcohol consumption.
Overall, Australia has observed a reduction in risky drinking across the population, with increasing numbers of young people choosing not to drink.
In contrast, women in their 50s are the only subset of the Australian population with rising rates of alcohol use. In 2016, data showed for the first time, they were more likely to drink at risky levels than younger women.
Drinking has become more normalised among women in this middle-to-older age group, potentially contributing to the rise in alcohol use. Alcohol has become a commonly accepted coping mechanism for distress, with women feeling comfortable to say “I just had a bad day. I needed to have a drink”.
This highlights a theme that frequently underpins problematic alcohol use in women: what’s termed a “coping motive”. Many studies have found more women drink alcohol to cope – with difficult emotions or stressful circumstances – as compared to men, who more often drink alcohol in social settings or as a reward.
Women seem to be struggling more during the pandemic
With this in mind, it’s unsurprising we’re seeing increased alcohol consumption among women during COVID-19. International data show women have been more likely to experience symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Australian data show loneliness has been more of a problem for women (28%) than men (16%) during this past month under lockdown.
Caregiver load has also been a source of stress, with women almost three times more likely than men to be looking after children full-time on their own during COVID-19.
While we don’t have enough evidence yet to tell us conclusively whether family violence incidents have increased during the pandemic, this may add to the mental health burden for some women during COVID-19.
Further, younger female workers are disproportionately affected by the economic crisis in the wake of COVID-19. The fact women make up a majority of the casual workforce makes them highly vulnerable at this time.
Together, it seems COVID-19 is having a different mental health impact on women compared to men. And this is likely to be intertwined with their increased drinking during the coronavirus pandemic.
Whether we’ll see higher rates of problem alcohol use or dependence in women after the pandemic remains unclear. However, we know women who drink at unsafe levels experience complications more quickly, and enter treatment later, with perceived stigma a barrier to help-seeking.
It’s vital we draw our attention to these gender-specific differences in mental health and alcohol consumption as we formulate our mental health pandemic plan.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Shalini Arunogiri, Addiction Psychiatrist, Senior Lecturer, Monash University; Caroline Gurvich, Senior Research Fellow and Clinical Neuropsychologist, Monash University, and Jayashri Kulkarni, Professor of Psychiatry, Monash University
Home cooks have been trying out their skills during isolation. But the way food tastes depends on more than your ability to follow a recipe.
For example, eating from a heavier bowl can make you feel food is more filling and tastes better than eating from a lighter one.
Contrast this with fast food, which is most commonly served in lightweight disposable containers, which encourages fast eating, underestimating how much food you’re eating, and has even been linked to becoming impatient.
These are just some examples of the vital, but largely unconscious, relationship between the design of our tableware – including size, shape, weight and colour – and how we eat.
In design, this relationship is referred to as an object’s “affordances”. Affordances guide interactions between objects and people.
As Australian sociologist Jenny Davis writes, affordances:
…push, pull, enable, and constrain. Affordances are how objects shape behaviour for socially situated subjects.
Designed objects don’t make us do things.
The colour of your crockery
When you visit a restaurant, the chances are your dinner will be served on a plain white plate.
But French chef Sebastien Lepinoy has staff paint the plates to match the daily menu and “entice the appetite”.
Research seems to back him up. Coloured plates can enhance flavours to actually change the dining experience.
This association between colour and taste seems to apply to people from Germany to China.
A review of multiple studies conducted in many countries over 30 years finds people consistently associated particular colours with specific tastes.
Red, orange or pink is most often associated with sweetness, black with bitterness, yellow or green with sourness, and white and blue with saltiness.
The size of your plate
The influence of plate size on meal portions depends on the dining experience and whether you are serving yourself. In a buffet, for example, people armed with a small plate may eat more because they can go back for multiple helpings.
Nonetheless, average plate and portion sizes have increased over the years. Back in her day, grandma used to serve meals on plates 25cm in diameter. Now, the average dinner plate is 28cm, and many restaurant dinner plates have expanded to 30cm.
Our waistlines have also expanded. Research confirms we tend to eat more calories when our plates are larger, because a larger capacity plate affords a greater portion size.
Plastic is too often ignored
The pace of our busy lives has led many people to rely on those handy takeaways in disposable plastic food containers just ready to pop into the microwave. And it’s tempting to use plastic cutlery and cups at barbecues, picnics and kids’ birthday parties.
In contrast to heavy, fragile ceramic tableware, plastic tableware is designed to be ignored. It is so lightweight, ubiquitous and cheap we don’t notice it and pay little mind to its disposal.
Plastics have also changed how we eat and drink. An aversion to the strong smell of plastic containers that once might have caused people to wrap their sandwiches before placing them in Tupperware seems to have disappeared. We drink hot coffee though plastic lids.
Australian economic sociologist Gay Hawkins and her colleagues argue lightweight, plastic water bottles have created entirely new habits, such as “constant sipping” on the go. New products are then designed to fit and reinforce this habit.
Healthy eating is not only characterised by what we eat but how we eat.
And the Japanese cuisine Kaiseki values this mindful, slower approach to eating. It consists of small portions of beautifully arranged food presented in a grouping of small, attractive, individual plates and bowls.
This encourages the diner to eat more slowly and mindfully while appreciating not only the food but the variety and setting of the tableware.
Japanese people’s slower eating practices even apply to “fast food”.
One study found Japanese people were more likely to eat in groups, to stay at fast food restaurants for longer and to share fast food, compared with their North American counterparts.
Affordance theory is only now starting to account for cultural diversity in the ways in which designed objects shape practices and experiences.
The studies we have reviewed show tableware influences how we eat. Size, shape, weight, colour and aesthetics all play a part in our experience of eating.
This has wide implications for how we design for healthier eating – whether that’s to encourage eating well when we are out and about, or so we can better appreciate a tastier, healthier and more convivial meal at home.