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Right to food: the impacts of bad diets

“One in seven people are undernourished, while more than one billion people worldwide are overweight and at least 300 million are obese,” said Olivier De Schutter, the UN independent expert on the right to food in his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council.

De Schutter reminded States that the right to food “cannot be reduced to a right not to starve.” It is an inclusive right to an “adequate diet providing all the nutritional elements an individual requires to live a healthy and active life, and the means to access them.”
In his report, he stressed that a large number of people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies.

Vitamin A deficiency affects at least 100 million children, limiting their growth, weakening their immunity and, in cases of acute deficiency, leading to blindness and increased mortality. Between four and five billion people suffer from iron deficiency, including half of the pregnant women and children under 5 in developing countries, and an estimated two billion are anaemic. Iron deficiency leads children to perform less well in schools and adults to be less productive. In addition, about 30 per cent of households in the developing world do not have access to iodized salt, and children born to highly iodine-deficient mothers are likely to experience learning disabilities.

“The health impacts of bad diets are well known,” said De Schutter. Diets rich in salt and alcohol, combined with a lack of exercise, often results in high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risks of stroke and heart diseases, while diets rich in saturated fats can increase cholesterol levels.

“Urbanization, supermarketization, and the global spread of Western lifestyles have shaken up traditional food habits. The result is a public health disaster,” said the expert. “Governments have been focusing on increasing calorie availability, but they have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what prices, to whom they are accessible, and how they are marketed.”

The accessibility and abundance of highly-processed foods are major factors in nutrition-related illnesses as they tend to be richer in saturated and trans-fatty acids, salt and sugars.

De Schutter said that children, in particular, frequently become addicted to the junk foods marketed to them. Furthermore, most advertisements promote foods high in sugar and fats and low in nutrients. A recent study covering television advertising in Australia, Asia, Western Europe, and North and South America found that children were exposed to high volumes of television advertising for unhealthy foods, featuring child-oriented persuasive techniques.

He noted that it is the poorest population groups in wealthy countries that are most negatively affected by processed foods, which are often more affordable than healthy diets. “In high-income countries,” he said “healthy diets including a wide range of fruits and vegetables are more expensive than diets rich in oil, sugar and fat.”

According to the report, the globalization of the food chain has led to the export of high-quality food, like tropical fruits and vegetables, to rich countries, while developing countries import processed food. “The export of such Western dietary habits,” he said “has brought diabetes and heart diseases to the developing world.”

In his report, De Schutter identified five priority actions for putting nutrition back at the heart of food systems in both the developed and developing world. They are: imposing taxes on unhealthy products; regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar; cracking down on junk food advertising; overhauling “wrong-headed” agricultural subsidies making unhealthy ingredients cheaper than others; and supporting local food production.

“Ambitious, targeted nutrition strategies can work,” he added, “but only if the food systems underpinning them are put right.”

28 March 2012


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