Leading agencies have urged commitments to ensuring the availability of healthy food in public settings.
The World Health Organization (WHO), Resolve to Save Lives, and Vital Strategies issued the call. A joint release asserted that “public settings, such as schools, childcare centres, nursing homes, hospitals and correctional facilities and all other canteens of public institutions, can play a key role in ensuring people are provided with healthy food and helping prevent the eight million annual deaths currently caused by unhealthy diets.”
The WHO has unveiled an “Action framework for developing and implementing public food procurement and service policies for a healthy diet” – the goal of which is “to increase the availability of healthy food through setting nutrition criteria for food served and sold in public settings. The action framework also aims to reduce preventable diseases and deaths from high consumption of sodium and salt, sugars and fats, particularly trans fats, and inadequate consumption of whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit.”
The benefits are manifold. As the joint release notes, “consuming a healthy diet from pre-birth to the last days of life is vital to prevent all forms of malnutrition as well as diabetes, cancers and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). The new action framework serves as a tool for governments to develop, implement, monitor and evaluate public food procurement and service policies that align with the core principles of healthy diets.”
India has much experience with the ramifications of unhealthy diets. 2019 saw research published that suggested food and drink sold in India to be among the unhealthiest in the world. As Health Issues India reported at the time, “more than 400,000 food products and beverages were assessed and categorised [by a study published in Obesity Reviews], with each category ranked using the Healthy Star Rating (HSR) system. Levels of energy density (calories), saturated fat, total sugars, and sodium were assessed for the HSR ranking of each category of food.
“Countries were then given a mean ranking using the HSR system. India placed among the lowest-ranking countries and ranked consistently in the least healthy third for all measures.”
The Indian government has made overtures towards addressing its nutritional concerns. The Eat Right Movement seeks to serve this purpose. With one in five deaths globally attributable to poor diets according to The Lancet, Health Issues India queried earlier this year “could Eat Right India be India’s dietary salvation?” As my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote at the time
“A dual burden of malnutrition has arisen, with both undernourishment and obesity presenting issues. Though obesity is often considered exclusive of malnutrition, this is a misconception. A person may be malnourished through being severely underweight, or they may be overweight through excess calorie consumption and still be considered malnourished due to various nutrient deficiencies — arising from the consumption of unhealthy, processed food while foregoing fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables.
“The Eat Right Movement aims to tackle both of these issues. This, combined with exercise programmes such as the ‘Fit India’ movement, could have a major impact on health within India. NCDs are India’s predominant causes of death.”
The joint statement of the WHO, Resolve to Save Lives, and Vital Strategies underscores this public health imperative. Recommendations included in the action framework include “limit sodium consumption and ensure that salt is iodised; limit the intake of free sugars; shift fat consumption from saturated fats to unsaturated fats; eliminate industrially-produced trans fats; increase consumption of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts and pulses; and ensure the availability of free, safe drinking water.”
In India, such efforts are underway in many regards. Just recently, for example, the commitment of the Government to making India a trans fat-free nation by 2022 was underscored by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) chief executive officer Pawan Agarwal. Heeding the warning of the WHO, Resolve to Save Lives, and Vital Strategies is vital to build upon the existing progress – and governments leading by example is key, the organisations say.
“Public places that serve the entire community, including our most vulnerable populations, must be places where healthy diets are promoted not discouraged,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Now is the time for governments to lead by example through ensuring that the food served or sold in public settings contributes to healthy diets and saves lives. No public funds should be spent on food contributing to unhealthy diets.”
Dr Tom Frieden, president and chief executive officer of Resolve to Save Lives, emphasised the message. “Governments worldwide have a responsibility to lead by example by serving and selling food that improve the health of their people,” he said. “This action framework is an opportunity to make healthy food choices the default choices at a large scale.”