Pandemic Crushes Nutrition ‘Decade of Action’
Diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables combat obesity – but these are being overtaken by fast and processed foods in developing as well as developed countries. Portrayed here a market in Tamil Nadu, India

A new report on global nutrition from the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals just how much the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the world’s efforts to improve healthy eating and reduce diet-related noncommunicable diseases.

Despite declaring 2016-2025 as the “United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition,” the UN General Assembly’s efforts to bolster nutrition within the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 have largely been crushed by the devastating impacts of the pandemic.

The nutrition goals, in line with World Health Assembly resolutions from a decade ago, target issues such as child wasting, stunting and being overweight; anaemia in women aged 15 to 49; low birth weight; the rise in diabetes and obesity; and excessive intake of salt/sodium.

“The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, other health emergencies – together with the disruption of the food supply caused by intensified conflicts and climate change – impede progress towards ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms and achieving the health-related targets of the Sustainable Development Goals,” according to the report from WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, which was approved by the body’s Executive Board (EB) on Friday.

“Adult obesity continues to rise worldwide. More than 1.9 billion adults are affected by overweight or obesity,” the report notes. “Nearly 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020. At the same time, up to 222 million people in 53 countries or territories are expected to face acute food insecurity or worse conditions, with malnutrition remaining at critical levels.”

Yet the report also notes that “in the face of existing setbacks, there is very positive momentum and urgency for accelerated efforts towards the global nutrition targets.”

Between 1975 and 2016, southern Africa saw the world’s highest proportional increase in child and adolescent #obesity – an alarming 400% per decade. Ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks contribute to rising rates of #diet-related diseases.

Acute need to improve nutrition in Africa

Globally, some 193 million experienced a food crisis in 2021, up from 155 million people a year earlier, according to the Global Report on Food Crises 2022.

Among the 10 countries with the most people in crisis, more than half were in Africa: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan and South Sudan. The others were Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Haiti.

Unsurprisingly, the African Union (AU) declared last year as the Year of Nutrition in the face of widespread hunger from COVID-19, conflict and climate change.

And last June, WHO announced it was setting up a hub in Kenya to help fight the “major physical and mental health repercussions” of the food crisis in the Eastern Africa region.

“Malnutrition remained at critical levels in countries affected by food crises, driven by a complex interplay of factors, including low quality food due to acute food insecurity and poor child-feeding practices, a high prevalence of childhood illnesses, and poor access to sanitation, drinking water and health care,” the World Food Program’s report says.

Despite limited data, the report shows almost 26 million children under 5 years old were suffering from wasting and in need of urgent treatment in 23 of the 35 major food crises and more than 5 million children were at an increased risk of death due to severe wasting.

In the 10 countries with the highest number of people in crisis, 17.5 million children were wasted – a term that refers to when a child is too thin for his or her height and results from recent rapid weight loss or the failure to gain weight.

Friction over corporate nutrition

Before the report’s passage, Tedros said he had “two prayers” for the world –  one for more food on the table for everyone, the other for less unhealthy food.

“So the issue now is addressing both both obesity and malnutrition. And I think the key is to implement the action plan in its totality,” he told the EB, adding that another important issue is the UN healthy agency’s carrot-and-stick approach to corporate engagement on nutrition.

“I would like to assure you that we collaborate on issues we can collaborate. On issues we can’t and we don’t, then we continue the dialogue, but we use the regulatory function to enforce,” said Tedros. “WHO has not been working with the food industry. It’s mainly – to us – confrontational. I don’t think that approach really helps.”

Tedros said WHO can enforce regulations when needed, but he obviously prefers to gain corporate cooperation whenever possible, which is what happened in 2019 when the food industry agreed to eliminate industrial trans fats by 2023.

“Many of them are doing it already. So we collaborate on that. While on salt and sugar, we still have a problem and on breastfeeding we have a problem,” he added.

The UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, Explained

Image Credits: @veerajayanth03, Dr Alexey Kulikov/Twitter, United Nations.

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