Developing nations must act to stop obesity epidemic: WHO

Geneva, Feb 3: Tighter economic policies and proper regulation can help governments prevent overweight and obesity epidemic in their respective countries – saving the people from serious long-term health consequences including diabetes, heart disease stroke and cancer.

Governments could slow – and even reverse – the growing epidemic of obesity by taking measures to counter fast food consumption, according to new research.

“Countries (like India) where the diet is transitioning from one that is high in cereals to one that is high in fat, sugar and processed foods need to take action to align the food supply with the health needs of the population,” cautioned Francesco Branca, director of the department of nutrition for health and development at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market would continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences for future public health and economic productivity,” added lead author Roberto De Vogli from University of California.

The researchers from the US and Ireland looked at the effects of deregulation in the economy – including the agricultural and food sectors – and the resulting increase in fast food transactions on obesity over time.

They took a novel approach of taking data on the number of fast food transactions per capita from 1999 to 2008 in 25 high-income countries and compared them with figures on body mass index (BMI) over the same time period as an indication of fast food consumption.

A person with BMI of 25 or more is considered overweight, while one with a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese.

The researchers found that while the average number of annual fast food transactions per capita increased from 26.61 to 32.76, average BMI increased from 25.8 to 26.4.

Thus, each 1-unit increase in the average number of annual fast food transactions per capita was associated with an increase of 0.0329 in BMI over the study period.

The BMI figures also reveal how widespread the problems of overweight and obesity are and that people living in the 25 countries are, on average, overweight and have been for the last 15 years, said the study published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

They also found that the intake of animal fats and total calories changed only slightly at a time of a sharp increase in obesity.

“This study shows how important public policies are for addressing the epidemic of obesity,” added Branca.

The findings are also relevant to developing countries as “virtually all nations have undergone a process of market deregulation and globalisation – especially in last three decades, De Vogli warned.

Measures like economic incentives for growers to sell healthy foods and fresh food items rather than ultra-processed foods and subsidies to grow fruit and vegetables can help.

Also, tighter regulation of the advertising of fast food and soft drinks, especially to children, and a more effective labelling systems especially for ultra-processed foods, including fast food and soft drinks should be immediately put to practice, said the study.

IANS