Programme Manager João Breda explains the likely repercussions of the WHO’s European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015-2020
With the unanimous adoption of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015-2020 at the 64th session of the Regional Committee for Europe, countries have taken a further decisive step towards promoting healthy diets and addressing the alarming rates of obesity that we witness across the WHO European Region. The Action Plan proposes a large number of policies to help citizens from all groups to achieve better diets and maintain a healthy weight.
The connections between energy-dense diets, excess consumption of fat, trans-fats, free sugars and salt, low consumption of fruit and vegetables, and the increased burden of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and some cancers, is very clear. Based on data from the WHO Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI), on average one in three children aged 6-9 are overweight or obese in the countries studied. WHO data also shows that more than 50% of adults are overweight or obese in 46 countries across Europe. More worryingly, the problem is disproportionately affecting our most vulnerable groups in society and is advancing more rapidly in the eastern part of the WHO European Region.
Governments at national and local levels can contribute to improving the diets of their population through changes to the wider environments and contexts in which we make our daily food choices. Such policies will influence the ways in which foods are promoted, their availability in different settings, and – in some circumstances – their affordability. Specific policy options highlighted in the action plan include stronger restrictions on the marketing of foods high in saturated fat, free sugars and salt to children, the promotion of better labelling on the front of food packages, and strict standards for the foods available in schools.
Furthermore, the elimination of industrially-produced trans-fats is possible and called for by many stakeholders including the food industry in many countries.
The action plan further underlines important actions at key stages throughout the life course, in order to maximise impact. These stages range from the protection and promotion of exclusive breastfeeding, to the improvement of the baby food market landscape, which is full of sugar, to the increase of intake of fruit and vegetables. Collaboration within and beyond the health sector is also central. Delivery of the action plan will require multiple actors from the education, agriculture, finance and planning sectors to name just a few.
The five priority areas of the action plan
Because its overall mission is so broad, the action plan has been subdivided into five key priority areas. These are likely to be effective in promoting healthy diets when implemented collectively.
- Create healthy food and drink environments. Arguably the most important to the food industry, this part of the plan has implications for marketing practices and product reformulation. With an eye to reduce childhood obesity, it aims to control food advertising aimed at children, as well as improving school nutrition policies. Further points include addressing product labelling and fostering healthy retail environments.
- Promote the gains of a healthy diet throughout life, especially for the most vulnerable groups. This entails taking a lifecycle approach to nutrition, beginning at pregnancy and continuing to old age. It means dismantling barriers to breastfeeding, improving food and nutrition education and addressing the special nutrition needs of vulnerable groups, including older people in care.
- Reinforce health systems to promote healthy diets. This aims to ensure that all healthcare settings remain committed to health promotion, and that healthy eating is a priority, e.g. by providing nutrition counselling or nutritional intervention procedures to those who need it.
- Support surveillance, monitoring, evaluation and research. This involves consolidating and extending existing monitoring and surveillance systems, which log factors such as childhood obesity. Through improving the use of available data, it will be possible to develop policies that better target the most vulnerable groups.
- Strengthen governance, alliances and networks to ensure a health-in-all-policies approach. If food-related policies are to have any impact, they need to be internally consistent and coherent. This part of the plan aims to ensure that countries take a coordinated regulatory approach, enabling multi-stakeholder action.
Dr João Breda PhD MPH MBA
Programme Manager Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity – Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Life-course
WHO Regional Office for Europe