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Mediterranean, Asian Diets Help Tilt Health Statistics in Australia

  • Phil Mercer

A new study says that the diets of Australia's migrants have helped to raise overall life expectancy in the country. Large numbers of native-born Australians still don't eat properly, however, a fact that is more than evident on Australia's famous beaches. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Successive waves of migrants have helped shape modern, multicultural Australia. They have added to the country's economy and culture, but one of their greatest contributions may be the foods and dietary habits that some of them have brought with them.

Researchers from the School of Population Health at the University of Queensland have examined the difference in life expectancy between Australians who were born in the country and those born overseas.

The study shows that Asian-born Australians are among the healthiest people in the country, followed by those born in Europe.

The study says Asian-born men are 25 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease than their Australian-born counterparts.

The researchers found that while Australia was among the OECD's top five countries for life expectancy, the picture would be far less rosy if it were not for these migrants.

Without their inclusion in the study, researchers say that Australia would have dropped at least two places in the world longevity rankings.

Professor Richard Taylor was part of the research team. He says that Greek and Italian migrants have introduced sensible diets to Australia.

"The southern Mediterranean diet is very healthy particularly with regards to the fact that it produces quite low rates of coronary heart disease," he said. I think you can see the effects of Southern European cuisine quite extensively in Australia, and also as I mentioned in North America, which is another mixing pot of European migrants."

There has also been a heavy migration in recent decades from China, Vietnam and other Asian countries, and Asian restaurants are common throughout Australia.

Professor Taylor says Asians have had an impact on the country's overall dietary habits.

"I think also in Australia we have got quite a lot of Asian migrants these days and their diet is often quite heavily fortified with vegetables, rice, fish, and these diets have certainly rubbed off on Australians, particularly in urban areas," he said.

The University of Queensland study states that life expectancy in Australia increased substantially in the latter part of the 20th century. While medical advances have played their part, experts say that the arrival of migrant groups with low rates of mortality since the Second World War has also been important.

Researchers say that without the influence of the migrants, the overall health picture in Australia would look far worse than it does.

This Anglo-Celtic-dominated country has a serious obesity problem, which is associated with too much processed food and dishes loaded with fat, salt and sugar, as well as a lack of exercise.

The latest figures say that more than half of all Australians aged over 15 are overweight or obese.

Two million more adults now fall into this category than did in 1995.

Andrew Sinclair of Deakin University says the phenomenon is easy to spot.

"The most serious development is type-2 diabetes in children and, you know, I look around - I've just been down the beach - and you see young men and women between the ages of I suppose 18 and 30 who have far too much around their middle. The change there in 30 years has been just absolutely phenomenal, and that really worries me," said Sinclair.

Obesity has become such a problem in Australia that health authorities in some locations have been forced to buy super-size ambulances to cope with large patients.

Recent health campaigns have urged Australians to adopt elements of the Asian and Mediterranean diet into their own. Doctors and nutritionists agree that fresh vegetables, fish and olive oil are major elements in a healthy diet - a fact that many of Australia's migrants have known for decades.