This seems counterintuitive. That in a country as wealthy as ours and with a world-class health system, 50 per cent of Australians are now living with a chronic illness.
It’s easy to think that this is a failure of individual willpower on a macro scale, but consider this.
If I had a class of 30 students and one was getting bad grades, it would be reasonable to look to that person for reasons for his or her falling behind.
But if half the child wasn’t doing well, we wouldn’t hesitate to look at the classroom, the curriculum, or the environment as a whole.
It would seem completely illogical to point the finger at half the class individually.
When it comes to our personal health, the cards are stacked against us in Australia.
Almost every moment of our day makes it harder for us to be healthy—and easier for us to increase our risk of disease.
The good news is that there are things each of us can do to balance the deck for ourselves and our communities.
The power of digital marketing
From the moment we wake up and turn to our screens, we are being harvested for data.
It is estimated that by the age of 13, the average Australian child will have collected 72 million data points – from our address, age and gender to our friends, preferences, emotions and habits.
Even things we “like” online and products we’re just looking at or thinking about buying.
This data is used to market specific products to our individual tastes and preferences. It even targets us when we are more emotionally vulnerable – or hungry.
This marketing shapes our norms and preferences from an early age. As young as 3 years old, children can begin to learn about—and, in fact, become attached to—brands.
We know that the habits we form in childhood tend to stay with us for life. This is why so much time and money is spent tracking, marketing and influencing our children.
Why your zip code matters
One of the strongest predictors of our life expectancy is our zip code. The anthropological environment around us shapes our health in many ways.
In Melbourne’s more affluent suburbs, such as St Kilda, for example, the average distance to a fresh produce shop is 400 metres.
Compare that to the 14 kilometers you’ll find in some low-income zip codes.
Access to green spaces and parks, health services, public transport, education and employment all affect our ability to access and achieve good health.
The wide variety of these services shows nearly 2.5 times more junk food outlets in poorer postcodes compared to more affluent ones.
The more or less our neighborhood contributes to our health, the greater the risk of chronic diseases.
Supermarkets are designed to trick us
Have you ever walked into a supermarket with two essential purchases in mind, but left with a basket overflowing with products you don’t need and aren’t good for your health?
You are not alone and it is not your fault.
More science goes into creating a supermarket than your average PhD thesis, and the modern supermarket has more in common with a casino than a traditional market.
in fact, supermarket design is based on decades of behavioral research.
The height and length of the aisles, the lighting used, and even the music are all designed to make you stay longer in the store and buy more.
We spend more time at the end of the aisles and that’s why this property is more expensive. This leads to a shift towards high-margin and ultra-processed products.
Junk food is twice as likely to be on sale and usually attracts buy-one-get-one-free discounts (which, by the way, are illegal in some countries).
The result? We buy more and more things that we didn’t come for and that we really don’t need.
Who can even decipher food labels?
Then there is food labeling. Even if we can navigate a manipulative environment, we still need to understand the food itself.
Now I’m a doctor with a PhD in public health, and even I find it hard to navigate the tiny text and long lists on the back of products.
We have a system that is difficult to understand and is optional for the manufacturer. Contrast this with some countries that have clearly marked, colored and mandatory food labels that interpret and communicate the health benefits of foods.
It’s no wonder so many unhealthy foods end up in our carts and homes when you consider the following:
- There are more than 30 names of added sugar
- There are no restrictions on the amount of sugar and salt that can be added to food
- Even products on the market labeled “no added sugar” can contain up to 30 percent sugar by weight
Cost is perhaps the most significant and growing obstacle for many of us when it comes to putting healthier food on our plate.
While ultra-processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar are getting cheaper, fresh produce seems to be getting more expensive.
Given the time it takes to shop, prepare and cook fresh food, this becomes unattainable and unrealistic for busy families.
Rebalancing the deck of cards
Unfortunately, there is no single solution.
While it would be easy to think that we can just build more hospitals and get out of this situation, this requires a deeper commitment to changing factors outside of healthcare.
The good news is that it is possible.
Countries like Denmark have taken bold steps to limit advertising to children, made cycling and walking the paths of least resistance, and strengthened their welfare systems.
This ensures that families on the poverty line don’t have to choose between a roof over their heads and fresh food on the table. This has resulted in obesity rates in Denmark being around half of ours in Australia.
What is required is a rethink – and some action
There are things each of us can do at home to balance the deck for ourselves and our communities.
Knowing is a great first step. Armed with information to understand what ultra-processed food is, or how the supermarket affects our brain, or the power of digital marketing, can allow us to take small steps to better protect ourselves.
However, above all, removing the steep barriers many Australians now face when it comes to accessing and securing good health will require action from all of us, together with our governments.
As complicated as it sounds, system change always starts with one step – or one conversation.
So, talk to your family, neighbors, and community leaders about the changes you’d like to see.
When it comes to Australians and our health, don’t we all deserve to be treated fairly?
Watch the first part of Madga’s Big National Health Check tonight at 8.30 on ABC and ABC iview.