South Asia Needs Stronger Food Policies to Fight Obesity

New research highlights an urgent need for more effective food policies to address rising levels of obesity in South Asia.

Better food labelling, healthier school meals, and taxes on unhealthy foods are needed to address the rising health impacts of 'overnutrition' in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, according to a new comparative analysis led by Imperial College Business School.

According to the study, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart conditions are a major problem in South Asia, accounting for two out of three deaths in the region in 2021 alone. Unhealthy diets are a leading contributor to these health conditions, which the researchers say highlights the urgent need for better policies and infrastructure to address the problem.

Changing diets

The research, led by Professor Marisa Miraldo and Professor Franco Sassi at Imperial College Business School and published in The Lancet Regional Health – Southeast Asia, found that existing food policies in these countries are insufficient to prevent the negative health impacts of widely available, energy-dense processed foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS), such as crisps, cakes, biscuits and sugary drinks.

By contrast, the researchers found there were relatively few policies aimed at improving the unhealthy food environments associated with poor diets that are a key risk factor for diseases caused by unhealthy diets. The research also showed that unhealthy diets –characterised by overnutrition and consumption of HFSS foods – are on the rise in the countries analysed in the study.

"This lack of action [by governments] comes at a cost of human lives and loss of economic productivity." Professor Marisa Miraldo Professor in Health Economics and Policy, Business School

Professor Miraldo said: "Our findings highlight a failure by governments to implement meaningful policies that address the impact of unhealthy food environments on unhealthy diets. This lack of action comes at a cost of human lives and loss of economic productivity."

"We found that most food policies in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka focus on preventing food adulteration and ensuring hygiene standards", said Dr Elisa Pineda, another author of the study, from the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Innovation at Imperial College Business School. "However, as trends in diets have changed and issues surrounding obesity and other diet related diseases have become more prevalent, there is now an urgent need for policies in the region to help counteract the serious health impacts of over-nutrition."

Policy measures

To address this issue, the research identifies several key policy measures that have proved effective in other countries.

These include: better labelling of food packaging to help consumers assess how healthy each product is; developing nutrition standards and catering training to make school meals healthier and more nutritious; introducing taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidies for healthy foods to encourage healthier choices. Other measures include placing limits on the promotion of unhealthy foods, including advertising and sponsorship of sporting and cultural events.

According to the researchers, the latest findings also highlight the dangers of malnutrition and the need for improving people's access to more affordable healthy food options.

The researchers highlighted how countries can improve the overall health of their population if they place health at the centre for all their policies, for example, retail and advertising regulation, the design of cities, transport links and improved supply food chains to enable access to affordable and healthy diets.

Professor Miraldo said: "A health-in-all-policies approach with multi sectorial action is necessary worldwide. "This is essential in addressing diet-related risk factors of non-communicable diseases (e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers) globally, for both adults and children."

The research was led by Professor Marisa Miraldo and Professor Franco Sassi, from the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Innovation at Imperial College Business School. The overall project was conducted as part of the work programme of the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease in South Asia and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) with aid from the UK Government for global health research.

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