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UN calls for healthy diet, exercise to fight rising death toll from chronic diseases

UN calls for healthy diet, exercise to fight rising death toll from chronic diseases

A healthy choice
Calling for decisive action on a global scale, two leading United Nations agencies today launched an experts’ report on a healthy diet low in saturated fats, sugars and salt and high in vegetables and fruits, coupled with regular exercise, in order to combat rapidly growing death rates from diseases such as cancer, obesity and diabetes.

Launched in Rome by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the report examines the best available scientific evidence on the relationship of diet, nutrition and physical activity to chronic illness such as cardiovascular diseases, several forms of cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and dental disease.

“All countries must act more decisively to prevent chronic diseases by supporting healthier diet and physical activity behaviours,” the agencies said in a statement that stressed the problem in the developing world. “Most developing countries simply do not have the resources in their health systems, and cannot afford to manage the growing burden of chronic disease in addition to their existing health problems.”

The result of a two-year-long joint FAO/WHO expert consultation, the report - Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases - comes against a background of statistics showing a rapid increase in chronic diseases, which in 2001 contributed about 59 per cent of the 56.5 million total reported deaths in the world and 46 per cent of the global burden of disease.

It concludes that a diet low in saturated fats, sugars and salt, and high in vegetables and fruits, together with regular physical activity, will have a major impact on combating this high toll of death and disease.

“Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers, obesity – these are no longer rich country problems,” WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said. “The majority of chronic disease cases are occurring in the developing world. Our experience shows us that even modest, but population-wide interventions on diet and physical activity can produce significant changes in the overall chronic disease burden in a surprisingly short time.”

FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said the report would help both FAO and WHO devise strategies to promote nutritious diets and healthier eating habits. “Today, only a minority of people in the world are eating the amounts of fruit and vegetables recommended by this report,” he declared. “Our organizations are facing a strong challenge on how to increase supplies of fruits and vegetables in a way that will allow all people everywhere in the world to have access to them.”

The agencies stressed that solutions to the global surge in chronic diseases would require stronger links between those involved in health and agriculture, at global, regional and national levels. The report is based on the collective judgement of 30 independent experts with a global perspective, who worked with around 30 of their peers to review the best available evidence on diet, nutrition and its effects on chronic diseases.

The report’s recommendations on diet include limiting fat to between 15 and 30 per cent of total daily energy intake, and saturated fats to less than 10 per cent. It suggests that carbohydrates should provide the bulk of energy requirements – between 55 and 75 per cent of daily intake, but that free, or added, sugars should remain beneath 10 per cent.

Daily intake of salt, which should be iodized, should be restricted to less than 5 grams a day, while the intake of fruit and vegetables should be at least 400 grams. The recommended protein intake is 10 to 15 per cent. The report also notes that physical activity is a key factor in determining the amount of energy spent each day and is fundamental to energy balance and weight control. One hour per day of moderate-intensity activity, such as walking, on most days of the week, is needed to maintain a healthy body weight.

Food and related companies are a critical element in developing a long-term solution, Dr. Brundtland said, noting that she would be meeting next month with senior executives from major food and beverage companies, and also with representatives of the key professional and consumer non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All of this input will be considered in developing the Global Strategy, to be finalized for the WHO Executive Board in January 2004.

The two agencies note that creating an environment in which the healthy choice is the easy choice has significant implications for consumer information and labelling and for education and recreation. It also has important consequences for agricultural production and processing methods as well as trade. It is for this reason that the two agencies have committed to working closely on diet and chronic disease prevention.