Australian of the Year takes on Big Food, says our diet is ‘killing us’

by | Jul 17, 2020 | Business

The nation’s flawed dietary guidelines have much to answer for, with more than 5000 people losing their lives “unnecessarily” from Type 2 diabetes in the past three months. With evidence showing diet can improve underlying health conditions, in a time of rising COVID-19 infections it is more important than ever to revise the dietary guidelines, writes Dr Maryanne Demasi.

​“A flawed dietary guideline, which we have obediently and blindly followed for 40 years, is literally killing us.”

So wrote 2020 Australian of the year Dr James Muecke this week in the Canberra Times.

Dr Muecke, an opthamologist who has spent about three decades working to prevent and treat blindness in some of the world’s poorest countries, also compared the number of lives lost to COVID-19 with the number of lives lost to Type 2 diabetes.

“In the first three months of the terrifying COVID-19 crisis, we tragically lost just over 100 Australian lives to this microscopic killer. During the same period, we lost more than 5000 lives to Type 2 diabetes, unnecessarily.”

Courageous intervention

Such bold statements have received little fanfare, despite it being National Diabetes Week. In a surprising show of courage, Dr Muecke also called on the federal government to revise or remove its dietary guidelines.

When a Tasmanian orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gary Fettke made similar observations in 2016 he almost lost his medical licence. It was felt that an orthopaedic specialist did not have the “nutritional expertise” to be giving dietary advice to patients — rather ironic, given Dr Muecke is an ophthalmic specialist.

I recall pointing out the flaws in the Australian Dietary Guidelines on several occasions during my time as a science reporter on the ABC and being met with calls for my sacking.

One can only hope Dr Muecke’s concerns will be met with a more respectful and rational debate because, of course, his observations follow the science.

Dietary evidence is flawed

Overturning dogma takes time but there is increasing awareness, at least among the general public, that the evidence that underpins our nation’s dietary advice is, as Dr Muecke puts it, “flawed”.

A previous investigation exposed these flaws and I have presented this evidence at a lecture held at the University of Sydney. The key is to disconnect healthy eating guidance from the interests of Big Food and Big Pharma.

Vindication: dietitians cut ties with sugar lobby

The importance of the government’s dietary advice, especially for people with diabetes, cannot be understated. These guidelines form the basis of menus in hospital wards, nursing homes and diabetes education programs.

A case in point: the Government’s “Practical Guide to Pre-Diabetes” recommends that people with pre-diabetes, i.e. people already showing signs of high blood sugar, can eat four to six serves of breads/cereals daily and up to two serves of “extras” such as two scoops of ice-cream or doughnuts — advice that is sure to worsen, not improve, blood sugar levels.

Mitigating COVID-19 complications

This week, I published an editorial in the BMJ-Evidence Based Medicine asking whether diet could help mitigate some of the complications of COVID-19 in people with pre-existing conditions such as Type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a diet-related condition that results in uncontrolled blood sugar levels. The foods that have the most impact on fluctuating blood sugar are cereal, pizza, bread and sugary drinks, which contain refined carbohydrates, starches and simple sugar.

It’s a no-brainer for people with Type 2 diabetes — if you restrict your carb intake, you also limit the need for the medications to control the sugar highs. And it may also help mitigate the complications that arise from COVID-19.

A recent study of people hospitalised with COVID-19 showed that well-controlled blood sugar levels was associated with reduced medical interventions, major organ injuries and death compared to individuals with poorly controlled blood sugar.

Illustration from Zhu-L et al 2020 Cell Metabolism

Illustration from Zhu-L et al 2020 Cell Metabolism

Can we say that the low-carb diet will prevent COVID-19? No, those specific studies have not been done yet, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that by treating underlying conditions like Type 2 diabetes with effective dietary strategies, we can minimise the complications that arise from COVID-19 infections.

Dr Muecke has this week reset the stage for an honest and transparent discussion about the importance of limiting sugary foods, not just for people with diabetes, but for all those who want to maintain good health.


Diabetes, the sugar lobby and Big Pharma


Maryanne Demasi

Maryanne Demasi

Dr Maryanne Demasi is an investigative medical reporter with a PhD in Rheumatology. She has done a number of important stories for including investigations into the infiltration of the medical profession by processed food companies and the over-prescription of statins. You can read more about Dr Demasi’s work on her blog, or follow her on Twitter @MaryanneDemasi.


  1. Avatar

    The entire business model of Big Pharma/Food relies on an unhealthy population who require a constant supply of proprietary medication and intervention. Combine this with Covid, and I believe this article to be the most important (and under-discussed) issue of our time.

    • Avatar

      Thanks for your response AS. Just Tweeted it out!

    • Avatar

      Thanks AS for your positive feedback. Just Tweeting your comment out!

  2. Avatar

    Eating meats and burning coals is as Australian as the “Beersheba” ponies in the high alps, and will last 4eva. Anyone who begins to suggest otherwise is un-Australian, and should be reported to AHPRA.

  3. Avatar <-- LINK TO FULL LTR OF Dr David Unwin FRCGP Norwood Surgery - Rec. 08/10/2018 by Australian Education and Health Standing Committee for the Inquiry into the Role of Diet in Type 2 Diabetes Prevention and Management that results in 4 MPs & their Science head traveling 1000s of miles to visit Dr. Unwin's practice in Feb. 2019

  4. Avatar

    OK, except type 2 diabetes is an immune system disorder. The immune system is overreacting to the body’s own proteins and creating insulin resistance as a byproduct.
    It is not created nor cured by diet alone. I think you’ll find a lot of deaths due to covid are also caused by the immune system overreacting. Our immune system once protected us, but now seems to hate us. That’s the problem.

    • Avatar

      The immune system is not an isolated system. It depends and works with the body. So what you are eating and exposing yourself to is affecting how your immune system behaves.

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        +1, and I’d add exercise, sleep, socialisation and stressors as the other main effects on the immune system. I have an immune disorder and when I line up good diet, hanging with friends, the right exercise and sleep, and healthy destressing I can bring my immune system into a workable place that otherwise I would have to take drugs that switch off a lot of my immune system to achieve (with some minor side effect risks such as dying from common diseases and developing cancer). Diet is a massive component of that, even the amount we are supposed to eat! I only eat lunch these days, any more than that and my immune system turns feral… the body and mind is a very complex thingy.

  5. Avatar

    Perhaps it would also be wise to involve an Accredited Practising Dietitian in the conversation regarding diet and health, given their entire career is about the study of diet?

  6. Avatar

    Brilliant, thank you. Glad to see you’ve popped up here Dr Demasi. I was so angry when you were flicked from the ABC for telling the truth! Know a few dieticians – I find them pretty blinkered. Absolutely gob-smacked at the Govt’s guide to pre-diabetes!!

  7. Avatar

    Very interesting. But hardly surprising. Bad heart health = trouble with the coronavirus.
    There was a Dr Cate Shanahan on Bill Maher’s show a few weeks ago. She reckoned that the inflammatory effects of the ubiquitous seed oils in modern diets was a great danger with the virus.
    It’s incredible that the media just doesn’t ever talk about this stuff. 20 articles a day on the virus in the major Australian newspapers yet they somehow manage to avoid talking about risk factors and how to decrease that risk.
    Not just with sugar/diabetes or low quality oils. The Herald was on a run there for a while when they had one article after another about how great working from home was cos we all get to drink so much more booze.
    Surely just about the worst thing to be doing under the circumstances.

  8. Avatar

    I believe you have simply outlined what the industry has been pushing for years and what has got us into this mess, High protein, fat low carb diets pushed by industry interests and lets not forget the gold standard of “moderation”. This is fine in some Utopian society however in real world practice this is the major cause for ill health.

    It is worth simply looking at the CV of this industry stacked board of members, brace yourself..

    Heavy reference to animal products including red meat, dairy, eggs, fish, processed oils backed by “research” funded by the very industries it supports clearly contradicts the scientific communities evidence and peer reviewed research without the conflicts of interests that a diet heavy in these CSIRO/Industry recommended items are in fact bad for your health and the primary cause of Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and linked to most dietary related cancers.

    Any good physician will agree that our body including our brain and immune system are fuelled by glucose, complex carbohydrates not protein and fat. Sugar is used as a escape goat for industry when it is in fact what is consumed with the sugar which is at fault, highly processed oils and animal products.

    The endless beat up on Fructose, Glucose, Sucrose and Carbohydrates has been a very successful industry favourite generating tremendous wealth for many with deadly consequences.

    The population has been convinced that sugar makes you fat but fat doesn’t, that is indeed an amazing feat of marketing.

    Don’t take my word for it, challenge your bias’s and look into it.



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