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Expert comment: Food industry should help tackle obesity pandemic

The UK food industry should do more to tackle the escalating obesity pandemic, according to one Liverpool Hope University academic. 

The comments come from Dr Farzad Amirabdollahian, Associate Professor in Nutrition at Hope. 

He was speaking as an invited guest at the panel of ‘Nutrition, Health and Obesity Crisis’ at Food Integrity 2021, a major online international conference with more than 1800 attendees representing over 500 food manufacturers, retailers, ingredient companies and scientific laboratories from over 86 countries around the world.

Dr Amirabdollahian, Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health, points out that since 1975 the prevalence of obesity has nearly tripled across the world. 

World Health Organisation (WHO) stats show that around two billion adults aged 18 years and older were overweight, and of these over 650 million were classed as obese. 

He reveals: “It’s worth remembering that being overweight, and obesity, are the fifth leading risk for death globally, and at least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. This obesity makes up for a large proportion of the burden of diabetes, ischaemic heart disease and cancers - while all the while being preventable.”

Dr Amirabdollahian, a Chartered Scientist and a Registered Nutritionist who was speaking as a representative of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST), discussed the complexity of the aetiology of obesity, with reference to Foresight 2007, Tackling Obesity, Future Choices, a major collaborative and multidisciplinary research project which provides evidence for the complicated bio-psycho-social-environmental factors that have, in recent decades, exposed us to weight gain, and the role of industries in this complex obesity system map.

Reflecting on his research experiences when it comes to the health and nutrition of young adults aged 18-25 years old, and older adults aged 65 years and over, Dr Amirabdollahian talked about the necessity of focusing on young and older adults as ‘critical’ target groups for tackling obesity and also for food industries. 

Dr Amirabdollahian says: “The transition period into young adulthood is a critical time for the establishment of lifelong health. 

“And the body of evidence from across the world, including our work at Hope with those aged 18-25 years old, show that young adults consumed larger quantities of high calorie, high-fat foods and fewer portions of fruits and vegetables compared with other adults, and these eating behaviours make them a group potentially vulnerable to positive energy balance. 

“This is important when you consider that this, ultimately, can expose this group to the risk of developing obesity and its associated comorbidities, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer later in life.”

Unless action is taken now, Dr Amirabdollahian predicts a dangerously overweight ageing society by 2050.

And he adds: “The health of older adults matters most, as globally and nationally the absolute number and proportion of older adults has been increasing. 

“To give you an example, in the UK in 1998, around 1 in 6 people were aged 65 years and over; in 2018 this was increased to 1 in 5 people and by 2038, this is projected to reach around 1 in 4 people.  

“We know that ‘life expectancy’ is currently not matched by ‘healthy life expectancy', and in many years of our lives we - and particularly the most vulnerable groups - live in poor health, dealing with communicable and non-communicable diseases.

“I believe that the role of industry in health, nutrition and obesity is changing:

“Once upon a time the food industry’s dominant perspective was that obesity is a matter of personal responsibility, and we had common food industry narratives of ‘blame’ when it comes to obesity, from food to diet and from diet to physical inactivity. 

“But this is no longer the case, and the major surveys from the US show increasing public support for the role of the food industry in prevention of obesity. 

“This is perhaps inevitable. Not only is our understanding of optimal diet, lifestyle, nutrition, health choices and disease changing, the food industries’ mission of convenient, diverse and low-cost food supply - which has been the case since WWII - is also altering. Consumers are becoming far more conscientious of their health, and the environment, and this can bring endless opportunities.’’

Referring to some evidence-based food policy success stories in school settings - in the use of economic instruments such as taxes and subsidies, and in nutrient profiling and labelling - Dr Amirabdollahian says the food industry’s choices are clear; they can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.

He explains: “We’ve seen multidisciplinary and collaborative work with the food industry, including the opportunities for engaging with young and older adults as priority consumer groups, opportunities with fresh, less processed, ethical and organic fruit and vegetables, as well as a desire to reduce sugar content and enhance protein content and quality. 

“There are also opportunities to explore - in terms of improving micronutrients dietary intakes such as iron and zinc enrichment and fortification - the use of interdisciplinary technology and implementation of the analysis of large data for personalising diet, as well as opportunities in new product development in view of changing nutrition knowledge and eating habits, such as the development of healthier snacks.

“I would like to believe the food industry will become part of our solution to the obesity pandemic.”

Published on 07/05/2021