Obesity targets missed but companies have “stepped up”

No country is on track to achieve the adult obesity target, with 39% of the world’s adults overweight or obese and 43.7% of children drinking soda every day, according to a new report.

Now in its fifth edition, the Global Nutrition Report tracks country progress against nine of the global nutrition targets. It is the world’s most comprehensive report on nutrition and this year highlights the “worrying prevalence and universality of malnutrition in all its forms”.

The research also found that a third of reproductive-age women are anaemic, and each year around 20 million babies are born underweight. Malnutrition is responsible for more ill-health than any other cause, the researchers wrote. The health consequences of overweight and obesity contribute to an estimated four million deaths, while undernutrition explains around 45% of deaths among children under five.

“Regardless of wealth, school-age children, adolescents and adults are eating too many refined grains and sugary foods and drinks, and not enough foods that promote health such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains,” the report reads. “About a third (30.3%) of school-aged children do not eat any fruit daily, yet 43.7% consume soda every day.”

New analysis of over 23,000 packaged food products (detailed on page 90 of the report) also showed that 69% are of relatively poor nutrient quality, with the proportion higher in low and middle-income than high-income countries. In the UK, the figure was 69%.

However, companies have “stepped up their efforts”, with firms increasingly making and marketing healthier foods. “Demand for products that enable healthy diets is becoming a major growth driver for businesses. However, […] most companies have much room to improve,” the report noted.

Beyond health, slow progress on malnutrition is also impacting the social and economic development of countries. It is estimated that malnutrition in all its forms could cost society up to US$3.5 trillion per year, with overweight and obesity alone costing US$500 billion per year.

The findings call for “immediate action”, said Corinna Hawkes, co-chair of the report and director of the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London.

“The uncomfortable question is not so much ‘why are things so bad?’ but ‘why are things not better when we know so much more than before?’”

The experts said the technology and policies were available to tackle the problems. “While malnutrition is holding back human development everywhere, costing billions of dollars a year, we are now in a position to fight it,” said Dr Jessica Fanzo of Johns Hopkins University, co-chair of the report. "From policies such as sugar taxes, to new data that enables us to understand what people are eating and how we can best target interventions, the global community now has the recipes that work.”

The team also found significant steps are being made to address malnutrition. Globally, stunting among children under five years of age has fallen from 32.6% in 2000 to 22.2% in 2017. There has been a slight decrease in underweight women since 2000, from 11.6% to 9.7% in 2016. Yet, while there has been progress, it has been slow and patchy.

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