Poor diets negatively impact global health and economies

September 28, 2016

A report by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition shows that poor diets are undermining the health of one in three people globally. An estimated 3 billion people across 193 countries have low-quality diets that contribute to poor nutrition and health outcomes, while also slowing economic and development progress. “Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century” outlines the toll that malnutrition takes on individuals, nations, and economies today and forecasts the expanding costs and consequences if these trends continue.

Food systems, which include how food is grown, raised, transported, processed, and marketed, play a central role in delivering high-quality diets. However, according to the panel, today’s food systems are too focused on quantity and not enough on quality. Low-quality diets are a driving force in increasing rates of overweight, obesity, and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, while also fueling non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

The report finds that without immediate action, the situation is set to worsen dramatically over the next 20 years as powerful drivers of change such as population growth, climate change, and urbanization converge on our food systems. Without significant changes in policies and investments by 2030, the number of overweight and obese people will have increased from 1.33 billion in 2005 to 3.28 billion, or one-third of the projected global population.

Data from the report show that while income growth can help to alleviate hunger, it does not guarantee accessibility to healthier, quality diets. While many people today have better diets than before, the intake of foods that undermine diet quality has increased even faster. For example, the sale of ultra-processed food and beverages rose from one-third of those in high income countries in 2000 to more than half by 2015.

The report calls on governments, donors, and global partners to put food systems at the center of global action, including the Sustainable Development Goals. While policy must be tailored to meet country needs, priority actions at the global and national levels include:

  • Prioritize improvements in women’s diet quality.
  • Develop policies to regulate product formulation, labeling, advertising, promotion, and taxes to incentivize production of high-quality foods and inform consumers.
  • Use public sector purchasing power to institutionalize high-quality diets.
  • Improve availability, affordability, and safety of fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, and seeds.
  • Foster increased collaboration and data access across agriculture, health, social protection, and commerce.

“This report makes clear the enormous challenge posed by malnutrition and poor diets generally to the detriment of many millions of individuals and indeed whole economies,” said Sir John Beddington, former UK chief scientific advisor and co-chair of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. “The level of effort required to address this problem is not dissimilar to the sort of effort that has been used by the international community to address the issues of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other pandemic diseases.”