New Initiatives to Combat Global Obesity

Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, recently stated that obesity has become a bigger threat to global health than tobacco use.

Believing that there should be stricter regulations on consuming unhealthy foods, De Schutter gave a speech during the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual summit and expressed concern that the world has not been actively tackling the issue of obesity. The WHO established the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health 10 years ago, but the global obesity epidemic is still expanding. Diabetes, heart disease and other obesity-induced health complications have become more prevalent as a result. To counter the growing issue of global obesity, De Schutter declared, “a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.”

Many international groups agree with De Schutter’s comments. Though the Food and Drink Federation has stated that the food industry is making clear efforts to provide healthier meal options, organizations like Consumer International and the World Obesity Federation are demanding the adoption of compulsory guidelines for the food and drink industry to follow. In 2005, the number of global deaths caused by obesity and being overweight was 2.6 million. The same figure had risen to 3.4 million by 2010.

The proposed rules include reducing the levels of sodium, saturated fat and sugar in various foods. Artificial trans-fats were recommended to be completely removed from all food and drink products in the next five years. Organizations have also asked for improved meals in hospital and schools, stricter guidelines for food advertising and increased efforts to educate the public about healthy eating. Governments could help control the global obesity issue as well by introducing taxes, changing licensing controls, funding new research projects and reviewing the prices of different food items.

If implemented, these new guidelines would be at the “highest level of global agreement.” In contrast to the current practice of “opting out” of imposed regulations on the food industry, governments would be required to enforce them. Dr. Ian Campbell, the founder of the United Kingdom’s National Obesity Forum, says that the proposed recommendations are within reason. “The inescapable fact is obesity is killing on a massive scale and only action from governments to tackle head-on the fundamental causes of obesity will lead to any meaningful decreases.”

Obesity has long been linked to poverty. The majority of overweight and obese people can be found in developing rather than developed countries. North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America have nearly the same percentage of obese people as Europe does.

Currently, people living far below the poverty line rely on cheap, processed foods that are high in fats and sugars. Compared to diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, these unhealthy meals have high energy content per dollar spent, making them more convenient and accessible to the poor. In South Africa, a typical healthy meal costs approximately 69 percent more than an unhealthy one. For households living in extreme poverty, pursuing a healthy diet could take away up to 30 percent of the total income.

Placing taxes on unhealthy foods could help combat the problem. Collective action is crucial. “If obesity was an infectious disease,” stated World Obesity Federation’s Dr. Tim Lobstein, “we would have seen billions of dollars being invested in bringing it under control.”

– Kristy Liao

Sources: BBC, Huffington Post, Time
Photo: Earth Times