There was a time when diets were earthy and healthier. Farm fresh produce were a staple in the past. But today, the convenience of fast food tempts us to choose cholesterol-laden meals instead of taking the time to prepare nutritious meals at home. And supermarkets, once a storehouse of wholesome foods, now offer a variety of inexpensive but high sodium processed foods and sugary snacks.
These ubiquitous, unhealthy food choices cause obesity, which leads to a number of chronic illnesses and the death of about 3 million adults each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In fact, WHO attributes about 44 percent of the world’s diabetes cases, 23 percent of certain types of heart disease and 7 percent to 41 percent of certain cancers to our bulging waistlines.
Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to food, wants to reverse the unhealthy eating trend. On Sep. 16, he called on world leaders to tax unhealthy foods, regulate harmful marketing practices and stand up to the food industry.
“Our food systems create sick people,” De Schutter said in a statement. “Failure to act decisively on this issue kills almost 3 million adults each year, and it is one reason why public health expenditures increased by 50 percent over the past ten years in OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and development, which includes the United States and several other wealthy nations).”
De Schutter, highlighting a high-level U.N. summit on Sep. 21 to map a global response to the obesity epidemic that contributes to chronic diseases, noted that it would be only the second time that the U.N. General Assembly will discusses a health issue. “Last time they made a lasting commitment to tackle AIDS. Now they must do the same for non-communicable diseases,” he stated.
World leaders must “counter” the marketing efforts of the food industry, which sells unbalanced processed products. He added that food advertising often targets children, and failure to regulate the industry would cause another generation to develop poor lifelong eating habits.
The U.N. Human Rights Council appointed De Schutter in 2008 as its special rapporteur on food rights. In that capacity, he works independent of any government or organization. He argues that globalization of food supply chains means that processed foods, which contain many unhealthy ingredients to extend shelf life, tend to be inexpensive and consequently affects the health of lower income people disproportionately.
“A comprehensive strategy on combating bad diets should also address the farm policies which make some types of food more available than others,” De Schutter added. “Currently, agricultural policies encourage the production of grains, rich in carbohydrates but relatively poor in micronutrients, at the expense of the production of fruits and vegetables. We need to question how subsidies are targeted and improve access to markets for the most nutritious foods.”