Healthy eating policies ignore sustainability of food

There should also be restrictions on the marketing of junk food and sweet beverages to children, EUPHA said. ©iStock

European countries are failing to integrate sustainability into policies to promote healthy nutrition, according to the European Public Health Association (EUPHA).

The umbrella organisation for public health associations wants to see a ‘sustainable nutrition task force’ established to encourage shifts in both food systems and consumption patterns across the EU. Plant-based diets should be promoted and carbon taxes could help, EUPHA suggested.

“Food systems should take account of and include both healthy nutrition and sustainability, by linking both population health and climate stabilisation agendas, through smart interventions that can improve both food security and human health,” EUPHA noted in its new policy paper, Healthy and sustainable diets for European countries.

EUPHA said public health organisations have “traditionally focused on the direct physiological effects associated with specific dietary components”. Its new policy paper for the first time “brings together the dual objectives of tackling the present burden of diet-related non-communicable diseases with future priorities for public and planetary health”.

EUPHA said ensuring that dietary guidelines integrate nutritional benefits, animal welfare and the environmental components of sustainable diets is an important first step. The organisation found “limited” experiences to draw upon. Indeed, an analysis published in May 2016 showed that only two European countries (Germany and Sweden) include sustainability criteria in their dietary guidelines.

More nutritionists should also be trained to educate children in schools. “Nutritionists and health professionals need to cooperate in increasing the public’s awareness of nutrition, and in triggering change in behaviour,” EUPHA explained.

Social marketing interventions aimed at changing behaviour are also needed, EUPHA said. Taxes are also an option but policymakers need to tread carefully. Carbon taxes could shift consumption but “… the focus of taxation should be not only on unsustainable environmental food products, but also on unhealthy ones”.

This is not straightforward. A tax on fish, for example, could have detrimental health consequences on omega three fatty acid intake. There are also the potential impacts of food taxes on poorer parts of society.

“… a major priority must be to integrate environmental and nutritional food tax policies, as part of a comprehensive approach, addressing environmental, agricultural and food policies,” EUPHA concluded. The effects on health inequalities must also be “openly discussed and counteracted”.

EUPHA’s paper touches on other regulatory triggers but does not recommend a package of policies as such – that would be for the new task force to decide. Rather, it suggests using “appropriate regulation” to ensure the food industry provides “healthy, nutritious (minimally processed) foods in a sustainable manner, which contain low contents of sugars, salt and additives”.

Production and marketing should also be “honest and transparent, with consumer-friendly food labelling”. There should also be restrictions on the marketing of junk food and sweet beverages to children, EUPHA said.

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