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Healthy food, healthy world

What does it mean to eat healthily and responsibly? This question is gaining a new urgency now that in many countries undernourishment is being overtaken by diseases of affluence, such as obesity, and we are also becoming more aware of the environmental impact of our eating habits. It’s time to take a good look at our nutritional guidelines.

Risks unevenly distributed

Prosperity is rising in countries such as India, Mexico, Nigeria and Guatemala, where a growing middle class has more financial freedom. The inhabitants of these countries are now attracting the same health risks as people from the western world. The consumption of convenience food can lead to obesity, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and diabetes, while at the same time there are still very poor groups in these countries, who are malnourished or whose food puts them at risk of infectious diseases such dysentery, thyphoid fever or hepatitis. Health risks are shifting, but they are still unevenly distributed, both over the world and within a society. This is also true of rich countries, where nutritional problems are more prevalant among disadvantaged groups.

Is taxing sugar effective?

Assistant professor Jessica Kiefte studies how eating habits and health are related in different parts of the world. Her research combines population studies - in which people’s lifestyles are tracked over decades – with medical data on the same group. She also explores which measures encourage people to eat more healthily. Measures that have already been implemented, such as adding iodine to salt and bread and adding vitamin D to dairy products and margarines, have already proven their effectiveness. But some new measures that are being proposed are disputed, such as a sugar tax, or enhancing bread with folic acid. To give these discussions a factual basis, Kiefte is looking for certainty about which measures do or do not contribute to health.

Fast food is becoming steadily more popular in countries such as India, Mexico, Nigeria and Guatemala.

Updating food guidelines

Dietary guidelines based on scientific evidence, popularly referred to as the ‘Five-a-day’ (UK and the Netherlands), the food pyramid (Belgium, Italy) or colourful posters with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food (Sweden). Guidelines in these forms can be an effective way of encouraging people to eat healthily. But are they still correct? That’s one of Kiefte’s questions.  ‘Guatemala, for example, still stresses the consumption of animal products such as fish, meat and eggs, in its guidelines, but this dates from the time when there was a bigger risk of malnourishment. These days, over-nutrition is more likely to be a problem. This is something we’re exploring and we will be suggesting some modifications to the advice. What we are ideally aiming for is to reach vulnerable groups of people, for whom healthy eating is almost a luxury.’

Environmentally aware eating

A new factor is that nutritional guidelines today are not just about health. ‘You can recommend that people eat fish,’ says Kiefte, ‘but if over-fishing means that the seas are becoming empty, that’s not such good advice.  Eating a piece of steak also has its drawbacks, because livestock farming puts a heavy burden on the environment.’  Kiefte works increasingly often with environmental researchers like Paul Behrens, Assistant Professor of Energy and Environmental Change, so that nutritional advice is assessed not only on its effects on human health, but also on its impact on the environment. ‘Obviously, a nutritional guideline that isn’t good for our environment, also isn’t good for our health.’

A Dutch fishing trawler at work 50 km off the coast of Mauritius.
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