Healthy diets for healthy lives

ROME, May 5, 2015 (IPS) – In the last half-century, people’s lifestyles have changed dramatically. Life expectancy has risen almost everywhere, but this has been accompanied by an increase of so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases, and diabetes – causing more and more deaths in all corners of the world.

My distinguished colleague Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), has called the worldwide rise of NCDs a “slow-motion catastrophe.” If NCDs were once considered the scourge of the developed world, this is no longer true; they now disproportionally affect low- and middle-income countries where nearly three-quarters of NCD deaths – 28 million per year – occur.

Much of the rise of NCDs can be attributed to unhealthy diets. WHO estimates that 2.7 million deaths every year are attributable to diets low in fruits and vegetables. Globally unhealthy diets are estimated to cause about 19 percent of gastrointestinal cancer, 31 percent of ischaemic heart disease, and 11 percent of strokes, thus making diet-related NCDs one of the leading preventable causes of death worldwide.

In other words, diet determines health – just as bad diets can lead to disease, healthy diets can contribute to good health.

But what exactly is a healthy diet? This is a difficult question. Generally, a healthy diet must provide the right nutrients in the right balance and with sufficient diversity, limiting the intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of total energy requirements, and keeping salt intake to less than five grams per day.

“There is no one-size-fits-all healthy diet. A healthy diet must be affordable, based on locally available foodstuffs, and meet cultural preferences”

However, there is no one-size-fits-all healthy diet. A healthy diet must be affordable, based on locally available foodstuffs, and meet cultural preferences. For over 20 years, FAO, together with WHO, has worked with governments on national Food-Based Dietary Guidelines: short, science-based, tips on healthy eating, in accordance with local values, customs and tradition.

Healthy meals do not always taste or look the same. Take, for example, the Mediterranean and Japanese diets: very healthy and completely different.

The Mediterranean diet revolves around the consumption of legumes, cereals, fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish, and moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt). It emphasises unprocessed, plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, in addition to the consumption of beans, nuts, cereals and other seeds; olive oil is the main source of (unsaturated) fat.

Japanese cuisine, on the other hand, is often associated with sushi (raw fish with rice), and sashimi (fresh raw seafood). The Japanese diet emphasises at least seven ingredients: fish as a major source of protein; vegetables including daikon radish and sea vegetables; rice; soya (tofu, miso, soya sauce); noodles; fruit; and tea (preferably green).

The Japanese and Mediterranean diets are examples of healthy diets. They use a great variety of ingredients; they are rich in plant foods including vegetables and fruit, legumes and fibres; they are modest in red meat; and they utilise many natural herbs and spices instead of salt to flavour food.

Both diets are linked to peoples and cultures as much as to their natural environment: it therefore comes as no surprise that both the Mediterranean diet and the Japanese diet have made it onto UNESCO’s World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The health benefits of the Japanese and Mediterranean diets are promising. Japanese enjoy one of the longest average life spans in the world – 87 years for women and 80 for men. In Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain, women have a life expectancy of 85 years. The figure for Italian men is 80 years, the same as their Japanese counterparts. All of them are above the average of high-income countries: 82 years for women and 76 years for men.

Medical research also indicate that that the Japanese diet leads to the lowest prevalence in the world of obesity – only 2.9% for Japanese women – and other chronic diseases like osteoporosis, heart ailments and some cancers. On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet, if followed for a number of years, is known to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

In sum, adhering to a healthy diet helps you to not only to live longer, but also to have a better quality of life. Conversely, a bad diet causes malnutrition and can expose you to a range of NCDs.

A modern paradox is that many countries – including developing countries – suffer from undernourishment on the one hand, and obesity and diet-related diseases on the other. And while FAO’s chief concern is to eradicate hunger in this world, we cannot separate food security from nutrition. FAO – together with our U.N. agencies – considers food and nutrition security a basic human right.

In all cases, the cost of malnutrition goes beyond the health of the individual: it affects society as a whole in terms of public health costs and loss of productivity, and, therefore, is an issue that must be addressed through public and coordinated action.

Last year’s Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), organised jointly by FAO and WHO, sent a clear message in that direction. The two outcome documents of ICN2, the Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the Framework for Action that commit world leaders to establishing national policies aimed at eradicating malnutrition and making nutritious diets available to all.

A key message from ICN2 is: governments have a central role to play in creating a healthy food environment to enable people to adopt healthy dietary practices. Yes, it is consumers who choose what to eat, but it is the government’s role to provide the enabling environment that encourages and makes healthy choices possible.

José Graziano da Silva is the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO),

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