Return to ‘Real’ vs ‘Edible’ Food is Needed After COVID-19 Pandemic
Food experts proposed a return to ‘real’ food over what is just ‘edible’

The explosion of unhealthy diets received considerable attention at last week’s WHO Executive Board meeting, as well as at last year’s UN Food Systems Summit – as key contributors to the global epidemic of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases – which have also exacerbated the health risks of billions of people to COVID-19.

Now, what is really needed, post-pandemic, is a return to healthy and sustainable ‘real’ foods that both dimish these disease risks – as well as the risks of another pathogen escape from the wild into human societies as a result of unsafe and unsustainable food practices – particularly around both wild and domestic meat production and consumption.

This was a key message of a group of civil society experts at a recent panel – who also drew a distinction between what is merely “edible” food and what is “real”, healthy food.  

Making that seemingly simple distinction will be crucial post-COVID recovery to stem rising noncommunicable diseases while also ensuring that our planet remains within the boundaries of sustainable food production as well as making , nutrition experts emphasized during a recent Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2) event. 

The event, “Sustainable healthy diets: Why are they so crucial after COVID-19?”, was hosted in collaboration with the Society for International Development (SID).

Featured speakers from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia discussed a broad range of proposed solutions that would alter the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed.  

Exiting the corporate food system

Attaining healthier and more sustainable diets requires an ‘exit’ from the corporate food system, said Hernando Salcedo Fidalgo, of the Colombian NGO, FIAN. “The exit must make a distinction between real foods over what we call ‘edible products’”.

Fidalgo described solutions as a “continued process” that would have to begin at the very foundations of government – with approaches that distinguish between “real food and just edible products.” 

SID Director Nicoletta Dentico added: “If we don’t want to see things as they are, for the reality they represent, after years of the pandemic – this is going to be a kind of criminal blindness.” 

Mexico as a case study example of the need to return to traditional ‘real’ foods 

A sustainable healthy diet requires increased vegetable and fruit intake, as well more whole grains.

At the session, Mexico was cited as one example of a country in the crosshairs of pressures from corporate food manufactuers – who have undermined the once healthy diet of indigenous Mexican foods, leading to soaring problems with obesity and diabetes.

Reverting back to a traditional Mexican diet – rich in beans, fibre and micronutrients – is one way to both promote both sustainability and health,  said Juan Angel Rivera Dommarco, Director-General of the National Institute for Public Health in Mexico. 

“Our food system is really contributing to the degradation of the planet, and at the same time has created an epidemic of obesity and chronic illness without solving the undernutrition problems of the world.”

He bemoaned the gradual encroachment of meat, fat, and sugar-heavy  ‘American diets’ into Mexico.  

“We lost so many years of building healthy diets in Mexico as a result of trying to imitate the consumption of food in the north, which is not a good example at all,” he noted. 

The traditional Mexican diet means reverting to a diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts or seeds, and whole grains – except in rural areas, where whole grains are already highly consumed. 

Milk and dairy intake also would need to be increased across rural populations, but decreased in urban ones. 

Substantial reductions in ultra-processed foods and reduced animal-source protein would also be needed to return back to the traditional Mexican diet. 

Average cost (MXN$) per capita per day of current Mexican diet vs Mexican healthy and sustainable diet

Moving towards this healthy diet would also be beneficial to the Mexican economy, Dommarco added.

The current average Mexican diet has been costed at $3.54 per day, whereas a traditionally healthy and sustainable Mexican diet would cost $3.06, while that proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission would cost $2.52.

Shift government subsidies from ‘wrong foods’ to healthy ones 

Schools are one place to implement healthy food use.

Noting that the Mexican government currently offers too many subsidies for the “wrong foods”, he called on politcymakers to shift money and policy support to healthier foods – also providing  a model for other countries to follow.  

Working with GISAMAC (Inter-Sectoral Group for Health Agriculture Environment and Competitiveness), Dommarco has helped to develop a Mexican toolkit with a full set of policy proposals to address the need for healthy diets in the country. 

Their proposals included increasing the availability of healthy foods in underserved areas, prioritizing these foods for government subsidies and procurement, and prioritizing healthy, fresh foods in school nutrition programs. 

Taxes from sugar-sweetened beverages and ultra-processed junk food should be doubled, with tax revenues used to ensure drinking water in underserved communities, he added. 

Policies from the toolkit emphasize a multisectoral and multisystemic intervention, including not only food systems and the food environment, but education, nutrition, community, and health systems.

“The idea is that we really need a set of policies rather than one single policy that has a multi-systemic view,” said Dommarco. 

Image Credits: Noranna/Flickr, Juan Rivera Dommarco , Juan Rivera Dommarco, Flickr: Bart Verweij / World Bank.

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