Health experts call for EU to move on eating habits

Measuring obesity [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Sustainable and healthy food.

SPECIAL REPORT / Health campaigners are calling for the European Commission to take action to alter people’s eating habits and curb rising obesity, but officials are wary that such a move may expose them to “nanny state” complaints, sources say.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 50% of Europeans are overweight and some 23% are obese. The figure is expected to rise over the coming decades.

The WHO says that people are consuming on average too many calories per day, up to 1,000 above the daily recommended intake, and too much red meat.

“In terms of the diet there is the [problem of] the absolute intake of calories. There needs to be increasing vegetable and fruits, decreasing red meat and decreasing salt intake – that’s a very important factor,” said Roberto Bertollini, the WHO’s chief scientist in Brussels.

The UK Department of Health backs up that claim, saying that reducing saturated fat intake from 12.7% of food energy per person to 11% would prevent some 2,600 premature deaths in the country each year.

Most of people’s saturated fat intake comes from animal sources of food, excluding fish, the Health Department says.

Dropping subsidies for animal fat halved heart problems

To Bertollini, if policymakers took action, it would not be long before there was an impact on people’s health.

The WHO scientist referred to a 2012 study, published in the BMJ medical journal, which found that when Poland abolished communist-era subsidies for animal fats in the 1990s, the incidence of cardiovascular disease and other ailments fell dramatically. From 1991 to 2005, the death rate from cardiovascular problems halved.

“In Eastern Europe, for example Poland, they managed to change dietary patterns very quickly, and so changed the incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer in a short time. There was marked decrease particularly in cardiovascular diseases, which is the main cause of death [in Europe],” he said.

Other Eastern European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania, witnessed similar improvements.

Cutting back public support for the meat industry will sound like music to the ears of the 'natural foods' movement, which says it offers consumers a healthier alternative to their current meat-based diets. The industry, which includes soy and other vegetable proteins, wants European food to match its real health costs.

“I think that today we are in a bit of a legal vacuum,” said Bernard Deryckere, the president of the European Natural Soyfood Manufacturers Association (ENSA). “I think that Europe needs to solve this legal vacuum, … to say to the people that there are alternatives to animal-based foods, and to review the level playing field in terms of taxation.”

Commission in 'realism' plea

The Commission is wary of taking too many steps to alter directly people’s diets. One Brussels source said that Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik felt that proposing regulation on people’s diets would open the EU executive up to accusations of operating a “nanny state”.

Werner Bosmans, an official in the European Commission's environment directorate, who deals with the resource efficiency agenda, said: "We cannot change diets on the short term … What's the realism of this proposal?"

"We're talking about changing people's diets. I don't see how you could do that," Bosmans told an ENSA-organised panel debate on 4 December.

The Commission has made previous efforts to guide consumers towards healthier foods. The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy will reduce subsidies for foods that harm the environment or public health when it is implemented, in 2015.

In 2008 the Commission also proposed UK-style traffic light warnings of high fat, sugar or salt content on food packaging. MEPs voted down the proposal, saying that national governments should decide themselves whether to use such visual labels.

The EU executive is now preparing a communication on sustainable food, due for early next year. The policy paper will focus instead on measures to protect the environment, for example the halving of edible food waste by 2020, Bosmans said.

“We need a harmonised legislative framework in the EU to facilitate the distribution of more resource-efficient alternatives to animal-based production as well as more policy and educational initiatives to raise consumer awareness about sustainable foods available on the market,” said Bart Staes, a Belgian green MEP.

Obesity is a medical condition in which excess body fat has accumulated to the extent that it may have an adverse effect on health, leading to reduced life expectancy and/or increased health problems.

People are considered obese when their body mass index (BMI), a measurement obtained by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by the square of the person's height in metres, exceeds 30 kg/m2.

Obesity increases the likelihood of various diseases, particularly heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, certain types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.

Obesity is most commonly caused by a combination of excessive food energy intake, lack of physical activity, and genetic susceptibility, although a few cases are caused primarily by genes, endocrine disorders, medications or psychiatric illness.

  • March 2014: EU communication on sustainable food

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