A healthier diet with meals cooked from scratch instead of sugary, processed foods and drinks is the most cost-effective way of tackling diabetes, said experts as part of a panel discussion on World Diabetes Day (12 November).
Going back to basics is one of the most important ingredients to fight the high rates of diabetes which have increased progressively over the past 50 years, with an estimated 387 million adults having diabetes in 2014, the vast majority of whom have type 2 diabetes.
A healthy diet can help protect against non-communicable diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
According to the WHO, an increased daily intake of sugar is associated with increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes and has to be addressed. The global per-capita food consumption has increased by over 50% over the past 50 years. Sugar is found in the vast majority of processed foods, especially in sugar-sweetened beverages.
Mexico is one example of a country where low-quality diets are having devastating consequences for the population.
Speaking at a diabetes conference in Brussels, organised by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), an advocate for people with diabetes, Judith Arrieta Munguia from the Mission of Mexico to the EU said Mexico occupies the 1st spot in the number of people living with type 2 diabetes in the world. The country also holds a second spot in the world when it comes to the number of obese people.
Munguia said that Mexicans over the past 20 years have gone away from eating traditional Mexican food and instead tried to adopt a Western lifestyle, including an unhealthy diet, as promoted on TV.
Now the government has a strategy which includes taxing sugar and fats, educating people on how to cook, but also teaching them about Mexican products. While Mexico is the world’s largest producer of berries, these healthy foods are rarely eaten by Mexicans.
“We are trying to go back to the tradional ways people used to eat. We have lots of natural, Mexican products such as fruits, vegetables with fibres, beans, herbs… We are going back to the roots,” Munguia stated.
Going back or forward?
Jo Ralling, campaign director at the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, said her foundation has over the last year focused on raising awareness of sugary drinks and children’s huge consumption and the effects on their bodies, but agreed that the root of the problem lies elsewhere.
“The whole issue goes back to food education and the fact that food education has basically been lost by this generation. It’s not part of the school curriculum anymore and there’s a whole generation of adults who have lost their ability to cook. That is one of the reasons they are turning to the foods and processed products which have a high sugar content in them,” Ralling said.
“A really simple message that we need to send is ‘cook from scratch’, using basic ingredients and knowing what you are eating,” the campaign director added.
However, Tim Lobstein, director of policy at World Obesity Federation, challenged her view and said it would be better to look forward rather than looking back and instead focus on the role of the food industry.
“Certainly, the food industry has to learn that in order to tackle obesity, we need to eat less. And that is not a welcomed message for the industry when they are trying to sell more. We should eat less food and most of it should be vegetables. We can’t go back to the intense labour in the kitchen from the 1930s,” Lobstein said.
While most of the panelists wanted to mainly tackle sugar in people’s unhealthy diets, Francesco Branca, director of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organisation (WHO), emphasised that the amount of fat in a diet also contributes to increased glucose and therefore diabetes.
Therefore, the WHO is also calling for the food industry to produce food with lower amounts of fat in diets, particularly saturated fat.
“Trans-fatty acids, which we still have in some parts of the world in the diets, are also responsible for the increased glucose. They should be removed and instead we would like to see more unsaturated fat. We would also like to see more fibres in diets coming from for example vegetables and whole-grain cereals,” Branca said.