Dairy foods and the Australian Dietary Guidelines – are we eating enough?

Healthy foods from the food groups image


By Dr Rivkeh Haryono, Nutrition Scientist at Dairy Australia 

On the 11th May, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released newly analysed data from the Australian Health Survey (AHS), the largest and most comprehensive health survey ever conducted in Australia. For the first time, the ABS compared Australia’s diet against the recommendations outlined in the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines. 

What did the data show?

Alarmingly, the data revealed that Australians are not meeting the recommended serves across all five food groups, with vegetables and dairy sitting as the top two food groups lacking in Australians’ diets. It was found that more than 96% of Australians are not eating enough vegetables and legumes, and 90% are not having enough milk, cheese and yoghurt for optimal health. Additionally, only 14% percent of the population consumed adequate serves of lean meats, poultry, fish and nuts, while around a third consumed adequate amounts of fruit and grain foods (31% and 30%, respectively). Check out the infographic below to see how Australians’ faired.  

What were the most important findings when it comes to dairy foods?

With the dairy food group sitting as the second most under consumed food group, let’s take a closer look at some of the findings. 

  1. Mean intake of the dairy food group was only 1.5 serves per/day. This is well below the minimum recommended intake for all population groups which range from 2.5-4 serves.  

  2. Women aged over 50 years are our lowest consumers of dairy foods with only 1 in 1000 meeting the recommended 4 serves. 

  3. The nation’s dairy lovers are our two and three-year-olds.  However, even for this group, 30% of boys and 40% of girls did not get enough. 

  4. From the age of three years onwards, at every stage of childhood, more and more Aussie kids are missing out on the dairy food group foods they need. By the time our kids reach 14 to 18 years, less than 3 in 100 boys are getting enough.

  5. Teenage girls came a close second in terms of most dairy-inadequate diets. Only one in two hundred 14 to 18 year old girls got enough dairy. Most of this group consumed between 1 and one and a half serves rather than the 3.5 serves recommended. 

  6. Cow’s milk is still the number one choice of milk. Of those who consumed dairy, 62% of the total serves came from milk, with less than 2% came from alternatives (such as calcium enriched soy and rice beverages). 

What are the health implications of missing out on dairy foods?

Dairy foods are the number one source of calcium in the diet , however low intakes also mean we’re not meeting recommended intakes of this critical nutrient. A previous analysis of the AHS showed 75% of females and just over half of males did not meet their calcium requirements.  The most recent analysis showed teenage girls and older women are the two lowest consumers of dairy foods, and as a result, are putting their bone health at risk. Adolescence is the most important time for building bones that need to last a life time, while in the period following menopause, women begin to lose bone mass rapidly, increasing risk of osteoporosis.  

While we know adequate consumption of milk, cheese and yoghurt is critical to bone health, the Australian Dietary Guidelines also link dairy foods to reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension and type 2 diabetes.  

Why are Australians diets lacking in foods from the five food groups and what can we do?

Australians are eating far too much discretionary, or junk food – more than 35% of our energy comes from sugary beverages, snacks and alcohol  which means we’re displacing intake of five food group foods. We also know consumers are overloaded with confusing information about nutrition; from celebrity chefs, fad diets and social media, everyone is an expert and it’s no wonder consumers are confused about which foods constitute a healthy diet. 

Consumers are well aware of the health benefits of fruit and vegetables, but it’s important we understand all five food groups, including dairy foods are equally as important. We need to get back to basics and focus on the recommendations in the Australian Dietary Guidelines to enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day.  

It’s also likely consumers don’t know the size or number of serves of foods from the five food groups required for good health, and therefore education and promotion of the Australian Dietary Guidelines is key. A handy tool is to use the nutrition calculator to calculate serves of all five food groups for every age and gender.

We also need simple messages which resonate with consumers. For example, the new AHS data shows Australians to double their intake of vegetables and add an extra serve of dairy to their diet every day.

1. Australian Bureau of Statistics [Internet]. Canberra: ABS; 2016. Australian Health Survey: Australian Health Survey: Consumption of Food Groups from the Australian Dietary Guidelines, 2011-12. Cat 4364.0.55.012.
2. Australian Bureau of Statistics [Internet]. Canberra: ABS; 2015. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results - Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Calcium. Cat 4364.0.55.007. 
3. Australian Bureau of Statistics [Internet]. Canberra: ABS; 2015. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results - Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Calcium. Cat 4364.0.55.007. 
4. 5Ebeling P, Daly R, Kerr D, Kimlin M. Building bones throughout life: an evidence-informed strategy to prevent osteoporosis in Australia. Med J Aust. 2013;199(7 Supp):S1.
5. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2013
6. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Bureau of Statistics [Internet]. Canberra: ABS; 2015. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results - Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Discretionary foods. Cat 4364.0.55.007 [updated 2015 Oct 15; cited 2016 Feb 12].