‘Coexistence of obesity and undernutrition a challenge’

Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, World Health Organisation, delivering the Dr C Gopalan Memorial Lecture at M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation here on Friday. Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The increasing coexistence of overweight and obesity along with undernutrition, called the double burden of malnutrition (DBM), was becoming a major challenge for low and middle income countries (LMIC), said Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, World Health Organisation.

Delivering the Dr C. Gopalan Memorial Lecture at M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation here on Friday, she suggested taxing high fat, high sugar and high salt products as a measure to address the issue.

“It is a sensitive issue as it affects industrial and commercial (interests) in a big way,” she said, adding that strong political will and commitment were needed to implement this.

Countries like Mexico and the United Kingdom, which levied such taxes, had shown reduction in instances of heart diseases and overweight, she said.

She expressed the hope that the ‘traffic light labelling’ for food products proposed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India would get implemented soon despite opposition. The labelling would classify products into red, yellow and green with red indicating foods that are not particularly good for health.

Highlighting the recent findings on DBM published in The Lancet titled ‘The New Nutrition Reality,’ Dr. Soumya said of the 126 LMIC, 38% faced DBM. Countries in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa were particularly affected, she pointed out.

Dr. Soumya said just as the burden of undernutrition was coming down slowly with around 150 million stunted children in the world as of now, cases of overweight and obesity were increasing significantly with 2.3 billion overweight children and adults.

She cited exposure to ultra-processed foods, reduced physical activity and urbanisation as some of the contributing factors to overweight and obesity among children and adolescents, which can lead to non-communicable diseases in adulthood. Arguing for coherent policies to tackle both undernutrition and overweight simultaneously as outlined in the ‘Double duty action on Nutrition’ policy of WHO, she said.

Strengthening of data collection on nutrition, decentralised planning, awareness creation and push towards consumption of diverse diets were some of the needed measures, she said.

Lack of data

Importantly, with the closure of National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB), India lacked comprehensive data on nutrition consumption by families. She said that even the available data was kept in silos by different ministries and departments.

Pointing out that the Comprehensive National Nutritional Survey released last year showed disparity between different States in tackling undernutrition, she said that it stressed the need for decentralisation of policies at State and sub-State levels.

She said that States like Tamil Nadu, which had addressed undernutrition to a reasonable extent, must reassess its public distribution system to find ways of tackling overweight.

M.S. Swaminathan, founder, MSSRF, recalled the pioneering work done by late Dr. Gopalan on nutrition research and how he advocated biofortification of food to address deficiency of micronutrients when the concept was unfamiliar across the globe.

Srivalli Krishnan, Senior Programme Officer, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted the lack of quality data on health that can be used for policy interventions.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 10:52:49 AM |

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