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As dietary factors and obesity have taken over as the key causes of the global burden of disease, nutrition experts say there’s a desperate need for a national nutrition survey to see what New Zealanders are eating, with the most recent survey a decade old.

Jim Mann

University of Otago’s Professor of Medicine and Human Nutrition Jim Mann and Honorary Associate Professor Winsome Parnell, a former director of the Ministry of Health-funded 2008-09 Adult Nutrition Survey, say serious thought needs to go into planning for an updated national nutrition survey with the last adult survey carried out a decade ago and a children’s survey in 2002.

“In general, inappropriate nutrition has taken over from smoking as the number one health issue facing New Zealanders,” says Mann.

“Good nutrition is essential for reducing the risk of premature death and ill health associated with three major diseases – cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes.  If you are going to make policy and guidelines about nutrition, you need to know what New Zealanders are eating.”

Parnell says there was a huge difference in what New Zealanders ate between a 1997 survey and that in 2008-09.

“There were big changes in that time and we are now another decade on; we can imagine what we think New Zealanders are eating, but if you don’t have a look, then you don’t know.”

Regular monitoring is important to evaluate any policies put in place, she explains. For example, after the last national survey, fortification of some foods was recommended with folic acid and iodised salt in bread.

“We give nutrition advice, so we are obliged to check whether people take that advice. And, if not, find out why not and what got in the way of that happening.”

It is also important from a food safety perspective. Food Standards Australia New Zealand regulates what is in food in relation to additives and acceptable levels of contaminants or pesticides and they need the food intake data generated from a national survey to do their job properly, Parnell says.

The series of systematic reviews and meta analyses identified that higher intakes of fibre and whole grains were associated with reduced heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and reduced mortality, and that increasing intakes reduced body weight and total cholesterol.

“We are saying nutrition is incredibly important for human health, but currently we don’t actually know what New Zealanders are eating,” Mann says.

“If we are saying there is a lot of evidence for the benefits of dietary fibre – and the whole world is talking about it – how much fibre are we having in New Zealand?

“We haven’t got a clue, but I am confident that it is well below what we now recommend for reducing the risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.”

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