Unhealthy Diets Threaten Global Health

An estimated 65 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where obesity leads to more deaths than starvation. In 2012, more than 40 million children under the age of five were considered overweight or obese, 30 million of whom were living in developing countries.

Around 3.4 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44 percent of diabetes, 23 percent of the ischemic heart disease burden and 7 to 41 percent of certain cancers are attributable to overweight and obesity.

In developing countries with emerging economies, economic development has resulted in unhealthy dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles fanning the flames of rising obesity and related illnesses. Thus, while many low- and middle-income countries continue to deal with the problems of infectious disease and under-nutrition, they are also drawing global attention to a rapid upsurge in non-communicable disease risk factors of obesity and overweight.

At the 67th World Health Assembly session held in Geneva in May 2014, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan reportedly expressed her deep concern about the increasing incidence of childhood obesity worldwide and announced the formation of a high-level Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity.

Speaking on the eve of the Geneva event summit, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, observed that “Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.”

Urging governments to move fast to tax harmful food products, he called for a new global agreement to regulate unhealthy diets to address the obesity epidemic.

Anoop Misra, Chairman, of the Center of Excellence for Diabetes, Metabolic Diseases and Endocrinology, and Director fo Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases of India’s Diabetes Foundation, echoed similar sentiments, saying that while health hazards of tobacco or alcohol are very much in black and white, in case of several food items there is a grey area as to what (or how much of it) qualifies to be unhealthy.

“There are certain food items which are totally unhealthy—like anything cooked in trans- fat oil is extremely unhealthy,” Misra said. “Another unhealthy food is sugar. If less than 5 percent of the optimum caloric intake comes from sugar, it should be okay. But if sugar contributes to 10-15 percent of calories taken, then it is a health risk and excess sugar intake effects are now being compared to those of alcohol. Excess sugar intake is directly linked to insulin resistance and is an independent risk factor for many diseases, including diabetes which in turn can lead to many ailments. Although sugar substitutes are safe when taken in moderation they do not make one metabolically healthy. They will cause as much of obesity as sugar will cause.”

Trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, are made by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils and are solid at room temperature. Trans fats give food a desirable taste and texture, are easy to use, cheap to produce and have a long shelf life. Hence they are a very popular choice of the food industry. However, they also raise the bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower the good (HDL) cholesterol levels in our bodies.

Eating trans fats increases risk of developing fatty liver, hypertension, heart disease and stroke and is also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Some countries have already put restrictions on the use of trans fat and saturated fat oils.

“We have to educate people to make informed choices—tell them what is bad and what is good for their wellbeing,” Misra said. “Whereas it might be difficult to put a blanket ban on unhealthy food, some restrictions can surely be put in place. Legal and regulatory issues should be clearly outlined (and implemented) for the food industry. Regulations on oil and sweetened carbonated beverages must be drawn. It should at least be legally binding on established food industries to refrain from producing/selling food cooked in trans fat oils.”

To begin with, he said, “they can at least make healthier snacks like chips, biscuits, pizzas, bakery items etc than what they are making right now. Of course it would be more difficult to rein in the roadside vendors in India. Regulations on use of trans fat oils should be made mandatory for the hotel/restaurant/eatery industry, but, more importantly, there should be firm restrictions on marketing of trans-fat oils for cooking. The Health Ministry of India is very proactively working on the issue of trans-fat oils.”

According to the WHO the food industry could play a significant role in promoting healthy diets by: reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods; and ensuring the availability of healthy and nutritious food choices that are affordable to all consumers.

Misra also said he favors imposing high taxes on sweetened and carbonated beverages. He cited a recent research which clearly shows that in India if taxation were raised sharply on beverages, the incidence of diabetes could come down by 3-4 percent, a substantial decrease. He appealed to the general public to be aware of the right life style and right food and follow healthy dietary practices in order to stay away from a host of life threatening diseases.

Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org. Shared under Creative Commons (CC) Attribution License