Obesity a truly global problem, says FAO

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags World health organisation Nutrition Obesity

Europeans are eating worse now than 45 years ago, but agriculture
and the right farming policies can promote healthy diets, according
to FAO economist Josef Schmidhuber.

Schmidhuber told representatives from member countries of the Regional Offices for Europe of the World Health Organisation and of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that the "EU diet has gradually deteriorated and has become too rich in fats, particularly saturated fats, sugar and cholesterol"​.

People in Mediterranean countries generally ate healthier diets than elsewhere in Europe but there were clear signs of deterioration in the Mediterranean diet too.

The WHO/FAO meeting, supported by the Italian Government, is designed to facilitate dialogue between the agriculture and public health sectors and to identify policy options.

These include supporting primary production and developing fiscal policies in order to help improve people's diets and combat obesity and related diseases.

But the general consensus among experts is that there is clearly a lot of work ahead.

"It is a sad fact that overweight and obesity affect the poorest parts of society most, and also have long-term consequences or one of its most vulnerable groups children,"​ said Dr Marc Danzon, WHO regional director for Europe.

"Everyone must have access to healthy food, and government policies must support both availability and access in Europe."

Obesity remains one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century. Its prevalence has risen threefold in many European countries since the 1980s, and the numbers of those affected, particularly children, are continuing to increase at an alarming rate.

Obesity is already responsible for 2 to 8 per cent of health care costs and 10 to 13 per cent of deaths in different parts of the European region - more than any other region.

And the condition appears to be truly global. FAO nutritionist Guy Nantel told delegates that obesity was not limited to rich, developed countries but was rapidly becoming a problem in developing countries too.

This placed them under a 'double burden' of undernourishment co-existing with overnutrition and obesity. Adoption of Western diets and increasingly sedentary lives were sending obesity rates climbing fast in developing countries, with women most affected, Nantel said.

FAO estimates that there were 852 million undernourished people worldwide in 2000-2002 while at the same time WHO said there were 300 million obese adults and 115 million suffering from obesity-related conditions in the developing world.

Nantel cited the example of China where 23 per cent of the adult population were now overweight or obese, and diet-related chronic diseases had become the leading cause of death.

One solution to the problem would be for people to eat more fruit and vegetables, Eric Kueneman, chief of the FAO service dealing with crop production told the meeting.

"FAO is actively promoting fruit and vegetable production for both health and for income-generation for producers,"​ he noted. He said that an ongoing joint WHO/FAO initiative on fruit and vegetables represented "an exciting avenue for expanded cooperation in the health, education and agriculture sectors"​.

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