Katherine Rich: Fighting the obesity epidemic

eh21 February 2013

Jim Mann is one of New Zealand’s most respected academics. He is Professor in Human Nutrition and Medicine at Otago University whose research has principally been in the fields of lipids and carbohydrates as they relate to coronary heart disease and diabetes and in the field of obesity.

He has been a consultant physician at Dunedin Hospital for 25 years, has lectured at Oxford University, chaired the Heart Foundation’s Scientific Committee, is medical advisor to Diabetes NZ, Director of the Edgar National Centre for Diabetes and Obesity Research and of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Human Nutrition, has worked with the World Cancer Research Fund on obesity’s role in cancer, written and edited several textbooks and popular books, has chaired  international and national organisations concerned with nutrition, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, authored or co-authored more than 300 papers on obesity and nutrition, won awards and research grants … the list goes on.

Small wonder, then, that when he publishes a finding the medical world sits up. Which is what happened recently when the British Medical Journal published a study conducted by him and his team at Otago University on behalf of the WHO into what is known about the effects of sugar.

They analysed the results of 68 trials and studies of sugar intake and body fatness, and reviewed the evidence on the association between consuming free sugars (those added to foods by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, or those naturally present in fruit juice, syrups, and honey) and body weight in adults and children.

In a nutshell, their conclusion was this: eating less sugar is linked to weight loss, and eating more is linked to weight gain – cutting down on sugar has a “small but significant” effect on body weight. It basically affirmed the known truth that if you eat too much and don’t get enough exercise, you’ll gain weight over time.

As you would expect, some commentators immediately jumped in and claimed it was all the food industry’s fault – that it promotes and sells food and beverages containing sugar and other calories but is not interested in being part of the solution to the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, such statements are made out of ignorance.

You don’t have to dig too deep to see that, in fact, the food industry – from the supply community through to retailers, and even some fast-food restaurants – is involved in many innovative programmes designed to promote healthy food choices. They are trying very hard to change people’s habits.

So what are some of these initiatives?

  • Some 18 of FGC’s member food companies are part of the Heart Foundation’s Fuelled4life initiative, which involves the education, health and food industry sectors working together to inspire schools to provide tasty, nutritious products and to encourage the food industry to produce and supply healthier foods and beverages that young people will want to consume. This has involved some companies investing in reformulating products to be accepted into the programme.
  • Sanitarium runs a national 0800 nutrition service staffed by nutritionists who promote the benefits of good food and a healthy lifestyle. Sanitarium also sponsors Weet-Bix Kids TRYathlons.
  • Nestle runs an online resource, Be Healthy, Be Active – Kia Ora, Kia Korikori, for teachers which educates intermediate school children on the importance of a balanced diet and exercise. Nestle is also behind Cook for Life, which teaches at-risk children how to cook and make healthy food choices. Via its sponsorship of MILO rugby in Auckland, Nestle distributes advice on healthy eating as part of a package for every child who registers to play.
  • Coca-Cola Oceania has run webinars on topics such as Dairy, Saturated Fat and Heart Disease, Mastering the Energy Gap and Fructose, has introduced low-kilojoule and no-kilojoule versions of drinks, and has committed to rolling out low-cal or no-cal options for most of its beverages by the end of this year. At the time of writing, it also funds health initiatives for at-risk Pacific Island families through Diabetes NZ. Coca-Cola Amatil and Frucor have agreed to not sell full-sugar and energy drinks to schools.
  • Sanitarium and Fonterra sponsor the Kick Start breakfast programme which has delivered more than two million breakfasts to children in decile 1-4 schools since 2008 and operates in 60 per cent of decile 1 schools.
  • NZ Sugar funds an independent Sugar Research Advisory Service which encourages appropriate use of sugar as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Heinz Wattie’s sponsors Project Cook, which is used in the technology curriculum for years 7 and 8 to help children make healthier food choices by teaching them how to cook basic foods.
  • Foodstuffs runs Food for Thought, a nutrition education programme that helps year 5 and 6 children make healthier food and lifestyle choices.
  • The food industry supports the Nutrition Foundation’s Food Week and Just Cook initiative, which focuses on cooking at home and eating well.
  • Some food companies have implemented portion-size and/or calorie reduction projects. For example, Mars has a calorie restriction on many of its chocolate bars, and maintains strict codes around marketing and advertising to children.
  • The industry funds the Food Industry Group, which is working with quick service restaurant food retailers on health ideas.
  • The Grocery Charity Ball is this year sponsoring the Steps for Life Foundation, which works with overweight young people to encourage healthy lifestyles and help them lose weight.

I’m sure there are others out there that I’m not aware of (but which I would like to hear about!).

So, credit where credit is due. Of course more can be done, but FGC members are continually looking at new ways of promoting healthy eating choices.