The EU is currently at a ‘tipping point’ when it comes to nutritional challenges, according to a new report, which highlights the urgent need for an integrated approach to ensure the balance tips in the right direction.
The report, published in May, takes a comprehensive look at European food systems and highlights that the EU is faced with a number of nutritional challenges, including overweight and obesity in adults, children and adolescents.
Although southern European countries and the UK were found to have the highest prevalence of overweight in children and adolescents, the number of overweight adults were found to exceed 50% of the population in all the countries analysed.
Speaking during a recent event to mark the launch of the report, Marta Antonelli, head of research at the Barilla Foundation, who authored the report, stressed that overweight and obesity are a serious challenge in all European countries.
“If we look at the average, we see that about six adults out of 10 are overweight and obese. And this is also increasing in the youngest generations,” she warned.
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It is estimated that in the EU in 2017, more than 950,000 deaths, or one in five, were attributable to unhealthy diets mainly due to cardiovascular diseases and cancers.
Meanwhile, the cost of adult obesity in the EU was estimated at €70 billion per year in 2016, or approximately 7% of national budgets across the EU.
Pointing out that Europe is the continent most severely affected by non-communicable diseases, which represent the leading cause of disability and death, Antonelli stressed that food choices are the “most important factor that undermines health and well being in these countries”.
However, as Claire Bury, deputy director-general at the Commission’s DG SANTE, pointed out, while average intakes of energy red meat, sugars, salts and fats continue to exceed recommendations, consumption of whole-grains, cereals, fruit and vegetables, legumes or fruits are “not at the levels that they should be”.
Drawing a line between healthy diets and sustainable food systems, she emphasised that current food consumption patterns are “not sustainable from a health and environmental point of view”.
“Healthy diets not only reduce the risk of life-threatening diseases but also can have a positive impact on our food system. The transition to sustainable food systems won’t happen unless we managed to make the change in terms of shifts in people’s diets,” she said, highlighting that now is “really the moment” to work on tipping the scale in the right direction.
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No simple solutions
Ensuring the scales tip the right way requires a multi-pronged attack, panellists stressed.
“Looking at food systems in a holistic manner is the way to go. We have to bring together all the different actors to help shape our policies and initiatives to enable us to deliver on our transformative ambitions,” Bury said, highlighting the need for a “fully integrated policy strategy” which engages all stakeholders at all levels.
One way that the nutrition transition can be addressed is by creating an “enabling environment”, Barilla’s Antonelli pointed out.
“It’s fundamental to create an enabling environment that helps us mainstream healthy and sustainable food choices in all contexts, so that these choices are really the easy, default ones for all consumers in Europe,” she said, highlighting the power of multi-stakeholder partnerships in facilitating this.
One way in which food business’ are being encouraged to do this is via the European Commission’s recently launched EU sustainability code of conduct.
In the framework of the code, envisaged to be ready for signature in time for the UN Sustainable Food Systems summit in September, the Commission is looking for concrete commitments from companies for actions on health and sustainability.
This includes encouraging the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and whole grain cereals, as well as improving the nutritional quality foods and meals through reformulation where possible.
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Education is ‘fundamental’
Another key element in facilitating a nutritional transition is education, as Michele Quaroni, deputy permanent representative of Italy, stressed during the event.
“Education is a fundamental element of a wider comprehensive approach to a more sustainable and healthier food system in Europe,” he said.
He stressed that it is of “paramount importance” to invest in citizens education and provide them with the “knowledge and skills so that they can make informed and conscious choices regarding their nutrition”.
Quaroni also commented on the fact that the report notes that traditional diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, are increasingly being abandoned in favour of Western diets, which are characterised by saturated fat, refined grain, salt and corn-derived fructose syrup content, with an associated reduced consumption of fruit and vegetables.
Noting the culinary and cultural importance of traditional diets, Quaroni also highlighted that these initiatives should also be focused on reviving “national the traditional dietary models,” which he said are “invaluable assets in terms of health and sustainability goals”.
“The value of the Mediterranean diet does not end with the balanced combination of foods, there is an even more important underlying cultural dimension in it,” he added.
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