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Why Melburnians make healthier food choices

Melbourne has earned a global reputation for its coffee. And where there’s good coffee, there’s probably good, healthy food nearby. Although it might appear that the cafe culture took hold of the city in the time it takes to whip up a latte and a plate of smashed avo, Melbourne’s buoyant hospitality industry has a rich history that can partly be attributed to multiculturalism.

Coffee houses were popular in Melbourne as early as the 1880s, but when the Italian restaurateurs started serving espresso in the early 1930s, Melburnians started to get hooked. By the 1950s, cafes including Il Cappuccino in St Kilda, Carlton’s University Cafe and Pellegrini’s in the CBD were working their coffee machines around the clock. Heavily influenced by European cafe culture, street cafes began to pop up on footpaths soon after.

Dr Lukar Thornton, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Population Health at Deakin University, says that while today’s strong cafe culture is partly a result of socio-economic patterns, ‘Melbourne’s key cultures, including Italian and Greek have influenced our behaviour.’

The Melbourne healthy eating advantage

Dr Thornton conducts research into food access and eating habits in communities and says that Melbourne – along with most eastern Australian states – is reasonably consistent in its access to a range of good quality food. So as far as the ‘northside vs southside’ debate goes, healthy food is not a deciding factor. In fact, he says across metropolitan Melbourne, residents are better placed to make good dietary decisions than people in other cities. ‘We don’t have a lot of food deserts where people don’t have access to good food. The levels of socio-economic inequalities are not as stark as the US or the UK,’ he points out.

There are three key factors that influence our consumption habits, according to Dr Thornton. These include: the ability to access stores as well as the financial ability, the motivation to seek out and prepare food and the environmental factors. This means it’s not possible to draw conclusions about Melburnians’ diets based on geography alone. Someone might be living in a high socio-economic suburb, for example, but they may still lack the motivation to choose healthy meals over unhealthy ones.

'We don’t have a lot of food deserts where people don’t have access to good food. The levels of socio-economic inequalities are not as stark as the US or the UK.'

Dr Lukar Thornton,
Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Population Health, Deakin University

Is healthy food at threat as Melbourne develops?

Although it’s growing rapidly, Melbourne maintains a small town approach to eating, with farmers’ markets and independent grocers building a presence. However, Dr Thornton points out that this can change as our dwellings do. The rise of small apartments with minimal storage and compact design could impact the meal planning habits of individuals and families. ‘We don’t know a lot yet about what effect small apartment design is having on people’s behaviour. Internal design could be a larger influence than external environments,’ he points out.

Ultimately he concludes that healthy eating does not always directly correlate with wealth. Rather, it can become a case of what’s easier. And for the time-poor professional, ‘sometimes it’s easier to pick up take-away’. Now a greasy snack is a few clicks away for those in the inner-city thanks to UberEats.

But on the whole, we live in a lucky city, where a new generation mightn’t be able to afford big homes with fancy kitchens, but delicious fresh produce is never too far away.

Interested in nutrition and population health? Explore the range of food, nutrition and dietetics courses at Deakin University.

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Dr Lukar Thornton
Dr Lukar Thornton

Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Population Health, Deakin University
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