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Progress on healthy food policies under the microscope

The escalating obesity epidemic has led an international group of nutrition researchers to focus on measuring how much progress countries are making in implementing healthy food policies.

“No country has reversed the obesity epidemic, in part because widely-recommended healthy food policies have not been fully implemented,” says Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health from the University of Auckland.

“Researchers have documented the increasing obesity problem for several decades and it is long overdue to start documenting how well the agreed solutions are being applied and what effect policies are having on the food landscape.”

Experts agree that the main driver of high obesity rates is the widespread availability of cheap, tasty, unhealthy food that is heavily marketed, he says.

“The surprising thing is that very few countries are able to describe what the food landscape looks like in their country,” says Professor Swinburn. “We currently can’t answer basic questions like, ‘What foods are for sale in which areas?’, ‘What is the nutrition content of those foods?’, ‘Which food are advertised the most?’, and ‘How does the price of unhealthy foods compare to the price of healthy foods?”.

The new group of nine university groups and five global non-government organisations, called INFORMAS, plans to monitor food environments all around the world so that these important questions can be answered.

This week, the INFORMAS group launched their plans at the International Congress of Nutrition in Granada, Spain, accompanied by the publication of a series of papers in the journal Obesity Reviews that outlines the group’s approach to monitoring all the important aspects of the food landscape.

The INFORMAS monitoring program will commence next year in several pilot countries, including New Zealand. The researchers will also identify those countries which have the healthiest food policies and use them as international benchmarks against which to assess national progress towards best practice.

“Some countries have made good progress in getting policies like healthy school food implemented, but many other recommended policies such as restricting unhealthy food marketing to children are just not happening,” said Professor Swinburn.

All countries have signed up to a World Health Organization target of reducing premature death from non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, by 25 percent by the year 2025.

“The target is to achieve no further increase in obesity rates, and this will be one of the most challenging targets to reach since countries are almost all heading in the wrong direction,” according to Professor Swinburn. “Changes in food environments will respond quite quickly to healthy food policies, and we hope to detect early changes in reducing the drivers of obesity. This will be critical in monitoring progress towards the WHO targets.”

The INFORMAS work is under the auspices of the International Obesity Taskforce, and is being coordinated at the University of Auckland.

The University of Auckland

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