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Improving nutrition a big challenge for India, other South Asian nations

Over the next 20 years, India, along with other South Asian countries, will face a serious challenge so far as improving nutrition and avoiding further increase of diet-related non-communicable diseases, including cancer, stroke and diabetes, is concerned, says the report.
Anupriya patel at the diet report meeting , New Delhi

India faces a serious challenge in preventing increase of diet-related non-communicable diseases including cancer, stroke and diabetes, says the report, Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century. The report is the result of a year-long study by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. The report was released in New Delhi by the Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Anupriya Patel.

Though the report focuses on low- and middle-income countries, the findings constitute a stark warning for all countries. Despite past progress, approximately three billion people across the globe now have low-quality diets. Nearly a quarter of all children under five years of age are stunted, more than 2 billion people have insufficient micronutrients and the incidence of overweight and obesity is growing in every region. As a result, many economies are seriously underperforming, and diet-related chronic diseases are placing ever-greater demands on health care systems.

The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), along with the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, also launched a new initiative, South Asian Policy Leadership Initiative for Nutrition & Growth (SAPLING), on the occasion. The SAPLING Initiative aims to catalyse integrated multi-sectoral action to address malnutrition at national and regional levels in South Asia. The achievement of this objective is centred on the creation of innovative, nutrition-sensitive solutions which will be developed by the leadership of key organisations from across all sectors which have an interest in enhancing nutrition outcomes from South Asia.

Among other things, the report highlights the risks posed by the double burden of malnutrition in South Asia, a region that is also riddled with lifestyle problems like overweight and obesity. Although the South Asian countries have surely addressed the issues of health and malnutrition, provision of healthy diets is still a far cry, says the report.

The report reveals that over the next 20 years with lurking disasters like climate change, depletion of natural resources and population growth, the risk that poor diets pose to mortality and morbidity will be greater than the combined risks of unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use in South Asia. Population growth, increasing urbanisation and the threat of climate change will exert huge pressures on regional, national and local food, diets and agriculture systems.

The situation in India is alarming as here about 80-85 per cent of population consumes processed foods as on date. This means people have moved towards energy-rich (unhealthy) foods and away from micro-nutrient rich (healthy) food.

Over the next 20 years, India, along with other South Asian countries, will face a serious challenge so far as improving nutrition and avoiding further increase of diet-related non-communicable diseases, including cancer, stroke and diabetes, is concerned, says the report.

“It is pertinent to note here that the long and damaging path that high-income countries have taken to slowing down rise in obesity rates is not a fixed route,” said PHFI president K Srinath Reddy.

“The level of effort required to address this problem is not dissimilar to the fervour with which the international community confronted HIV/AIDS, malaria and other pandemic diseases,” said Sir John Beddington, former UK Chief Scientific Advisor and co-chair of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

The report says that unless policy makers act decisively to control overweight, obesity and diet-related disease and accelerate efforts to reduce under-nutrition, all countries will pay a heavy price in terms of mortality, physical health, mental well-being, economic losses and degradation of the environment. The stark message to world leaders is that only a response on the scale and commitment used to tackle HIV/AIDS and malaria is required to meet the challenge, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. It is also essential that the public and private sectors work together to achieve this.

The report recommends that in South Asia, specific priorities for action need to include focusing food and agriculture policies on securing diet quality for infants and young children, improving adolescent girl and adult women’s diet quality as a priority in all policy making that shapes food systems, making fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds much more available and more affordable among others.

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