By Allison Fox
Diet-related disease is not just an American problem.
Across the globe, poor diets now pose a greater collective health risk than unsafe sex, alcohol, drugs and tobacco use combined, according to a new report by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.
“This snuck up on us,” report co-author Patrick Webb, a nutrition professor at Tufts University and policy and evidence advisor to the panel, told The Huffington Post. “The key point is that poor quality of diets is now the single biggest contributor to the global burden of non-communicable disease.”
Members of the Global Panel, an independent group of food and nutrition researchers funded by the U.K. government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are worried that poorer, developing countries around the world will see a spike in diet-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. And this makes sense: Obesity rates are climbing in all 190 countries, and research shows obesity increases the risk of all these diseases.
Non-communicable diseases can be influenced or acquired by individual behavior, and, Webb argues, due to the choices people make. The report shows that even people who can otherwise access and eat healthy food are choosing food detrimental to their own health.
“If current trends continue,” the researchers wrote, “the combined number of overweight and obese individuals will increase from 1.33 billion in 2005 to 3.28 billion in 2030.”
It’s well known in the U.S. that common barriers to fresh, healthy foods include access and cost, thus lower-income families more often reach for cheap, processed meals. Yet this study shows that being poor wherever you are in the world results in an unhealthy diet. The report noted that developing countries have the fastest growing sales for processed foods that contribute calories, sugar, salt and fat, but deliver little in the form of fruits, vegetables, legumes and protein. While more women are surviving childbirth and less children die from infectious disease, lifestyle factors such as diet, drug use, high blood pressure and high body mass index now increase risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. So much so that seven out of ten people die around the world due to non-communicable disease and chronic illness.
“Poorer people in the U.S. and around the world are not consuming enough fruits, vegetables, beans and seafood,” Webb said. In some cases it’s living in a remote area that makes getting good food a challenge, but there’s also an uptick in the number of low-income people living in urban environments. “What they can afford is the cheapest, ultra processed food, rather than perishable foods,” he said.
It’s also true that as incomes increased around the world, so did the consumption of unhealthy foods. Just because a person can afford to eat high quality, healthy food doesn’t mean they will ― making higher incomes a “double-edged sword,” Lawrence Haddad, a co-author formerly with the International Food Policy Research Institute, told NPR.
The report did deliver some good news. Over the past 25 years, the world hunger rate fell from 18.6 percent to 11.8 percent, and the percentage of children who are stunted ― often a result of malnourishment ― dropped from 39.6 percent to 23.8 percent.
The report serves as a call to action, as researchers wrote that the “international community needs to step up and accord the goal of healthy diets to all, and extend the same level of focus and commitment that it gave to addressing HIV/AIDS, malaria and smoking.”
The researchers outlined numerous solutions, but several are a broad stroke at best. For example, they wrote that governments and organizations should research agricultural investments worldwide, so the healthiest, most nutrient-dense food is available to the consumer.
Marion Nestle, a food professor and policy expert at New York University, told The Huffington Post she was skeptical the report would lead to action.
“How are governments supposed to do this?” she asked. “These are all great ideas, but without assigning specific responsibility to agencies within governments to carry out these initiatives, the report will go into a drawer and be ignored as so many others have.”
Webb remains hopeful.
“We’re taking the report on the road to engage with policy makers,” he said of Global Plan. “We’re using this report as a wake-up call about the food system. On the government side, there has to be a realization that you can’t address major health problems like diabetes and heart disease just by prescribing medication. It’s a crisis of diets.”