Diet therapy

Wise up to Discretionary Foods for better health

If you are struggling to lose weight or lower your cholesterol level then taking a closer look at your intake of discretionary foods may  improve your results.

What are Discretionary Foods?

These are a group of foods identified in the Australian Dietary Guidelines1 (ADG)  that do not fit into their core Five Food Group System (Fruit; Grains; Lean meat & poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds; Milk,yoghurt,cheese and alternatives to dairy products; Vegetables & legumes/beans) because they are not essential to a healthy diet.

Discretionary foods (DF) are foods that are high in energy, low in vitamins and minerals, they contain excess saturated fat, sugar, added salt or alcohol and are low in dietary fibre. All characteristics of foods that can increase the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some forms of cancer.

How do we quantify Discretionary Foods?

DF foods are often viewed as ‘treat foods’ and associated with entertainment such as parties/special occasions so it is very easy to consume more of them than you may realise, particularly when distracted by other people eating in a relaxed, happy setting.
This is why it is important to think about portion size in terms of energy consumption if you are needing to lose weight or control intake.
The ADG have provided these examples:

A serve of these DF’s provides around 600 kJ:

  • 2 scoops (75g) regular ice cream
  • ¼ cup condensed milk
  • 50-60g (about two slices) processed meats, salami, mettwurst
  • 1 ½ thick or 2 thinner higher fat/salt sausages
  • 30g salty crackers (a small individual serve packet)
  • 2-3 sweet biscuits
  • 1 (40 g) doughnut
  • 1 slice (40 g) plain cake or small cake-type muffin
  • 40g sugar confectionary (about 5-6 small lollies)
  • 60g jam/honey (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1/2 small bar (25 g) chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons (40 g) cream
  • 1 tablespoon (20 g) butter or hard margarine
  • 200 mL wine (2 standard drinks (note this is often 1 glass for many Australian wines)
  • 60 mL spirits (2 standard drinks)
  • 600 mL light beer (1½ standard drinks)
  • 400 mL regular beer (1½ standard drinks)
  • 1 can (375 mL) soft drink
  • 1/3 (60 g) commercial meat pie or pastie
  • 12 (60 g) fried hot chips

Are Discretionary Foods a problem?

A survey conducted in Australia in 2013 2 found that DF made up around 35% of respondents total energy intake although researchers noted that people when being studied tend to change their behaviour so as to under-report (consciously or unconsciously) their true intakes.

The proportion of energy consumed from DF’s was lowest for 2-3 year old children (30%) and highest among the 14-18 year old group (41%) and declined with age. From 30-71year old and over men scored an average of 35% DF intake compared to 30% in women.

The type of DF’s chosen varied with age

Age (yrs) Type of food % Energy
2-3. Biscuits 4.8
4-8. Muffins, scones, cakes, desserts 4.8
9-13. ”               ”             ”           “ 4.6
14-18 Confectionery 3.7
Cereal/ nut & seed bars 3.6
Soft drink 3.7
Flavoured mineral water 3.6
19 & over Alcohol 6

How do discretionary foods fit into a healthy diet?

1) Increased nutrient needs

Some people may require extra energy because they are taller, more active or may have medical conditions that increase their metabolic rate and therefore they need more calories/kilojoules than an average person.

Ideally these extra needs should be met by increasing the number of servings of core foods such as bread and cereals, legumes/beans and fruit.

However many of these core foods can be very bulky, low in calories and ‘too filling’ to meet the higher energy needs of people at key times such as athletes during competition, the underweight elderly or those convalescing after surgery.

When this occurs then discretionary foods may be used. However this does need to be done with care because their higher fat and sodium content can bring other health risks. A registered Dietitian can help you manage your changing nutritional needs.

2) DF’s have links to family rituals

Many of the DF are the traditional foods we eat to celebrate success and festival’s (e.g.gradulations/birthdays/Easter) and commiserate when we have losses (e.g. through death or separation from our loved ones).

Unfortunately this may also be why familial diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke persist from one generation to the next. Learning how to find healthier alternatives for some of the ingredients in traditional foods or changing the way we mark such occasions can help to improve the longevity of future generations.

3) DF’s can be mood enhancing

DF such as chocolate and confectionery are often used psychologically as tools of motivation e.g. to encourage students to study or athletes during the last leg of a marathon event to push through the pain barrier and reach the finish line.

While athletes may want to bulk up and /or trim down, push the boundaries of endurance and improve their rankings these things can still be achieved without weakening the body, raising cholesterol or the risk to heart health by eating DF’s to excess.

A Sports Dietitian can help balance out these risk factors with a nutritional assessment and sports specific nutrition plan.

Are healthy core foods Discretionary Food’s in disguise?

While DF are not necessary they do add variety and enjoyment to some of the foods we eat.

Porridge may not taste as good if salt and brown sugar weren’t added. Just in the same way a smear of jam or honey on whole grain toast can improve it’s taste. It all comes down to how much is added and needed at the time.

Some core foods such as breakfast cereals, dairy products such as milk and yoghurt, baked beans etc can have quite high levels of added sugar and salt, making them closer to DF’s so it is important to read food labels.

This is where the Healthy Star Rating (HSR) can prove very useful. A recent survey conducted by the NSW department of health 3 assessed 11,500 products across 30 categories and found 82% had a HSR that aligned with the ADG’s for core v’s DF’s using a cut off HSR of 3.5 or more.

In this study 14% of foods that scored a HSR of 3.5 or above were classified as DF”s by the ADG’s. These foods were described as healthier foods within the DF’s category. The HSR includes fruit, protein, dietary fibre, vegetables, nuts and legume content. So it is possible that DF’s containing these ingredients and nutrients can score higher even if they have added sugar.

Currently, Snack bars; cereal/grain and fruit based muesli bars; Dairy desserts, rice puddings; Ices and low-fat ice creams, can all comply under the HSR.

This does raise the concern that some manufacturers may use healthy nutrients to leverage the HSR in their favour and to counteract the effects of higher levels of ‘added sugar’ in their products.

The HSR program is still being refined and hopefully future work will be carried out to close this possible loop-hole by enabling the consumer to better distinguish between natural and ‘added sugar’ in foods.

Key tips for managing Discretionary Foods

  • Take a note of your weekly consumption of the products on the DF list and aim to eat less for better health.
  • When shopping choose foods with a HSR >3.5 as foods less than this are more likely to be DF’s.
  • If you are needing a high energy intake and are wanting to use DF regularly then discuss this with a Registered Dietitian. It could be that the use of a dietary supplement is a safer proposition for times of increased energy need, especially if you are a person already at risk with elevated blood glucose or lipid levels.
  • Alcohol is a DF for which there is no recommended safe level of intake. Taking a note of your weekly alcohol intake and cutting back your consumption can be the first important step towards better health and fitness.

If you would like to have a dietary assessment to determine how you could improve your health and or control your weight and cholesterol level then contact us today.

If you would like to read other articles by Lea on similar topics see:

8 tips for making real food choices
Could you make healthier decisions when shopping?
8 tips to break the sugar habit
Whats the fuss about fructose?
Does your diet tick all the boxes?


  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013,Australian Health Survey: Updated Results, 2011-2012,cat. no. 4364.0.55.003, <
  3. The big issue discretionary Foods

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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