UN health agency meets with NGOs to push healthy diet in battle against disease

16 May 2003

The United Nations health agency today sought the full support of leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the health and consumer fields as it pushed ahead with plans to encourage healthier diets and increased physical activity to curb chronic diseases, which account for nearly 60 per cent of annual deaths worldwide.

NGOs play a key role in shifting and influencing consumer demand, as well as national and international political priorities, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Gro Harlem Brundtland, told a roundtable meeting of agency officials and NGO representatives.

It was the second such meeting since the WHO and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) launched an experts’ report last month linking a healthy diet low in saturated fats, sugars and salt, and high in vegetables and fruits – coupled with regular exercise – to the battle against chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases, several forms of cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and dental disease.

Last week, Ms. Brundtland held the first formal Roundtable meeting to enlist the support of senior executives from the food and associated industries. The agency is currently preparing a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health to address the growing toll of death and disability from chronic diseases for presentation to the World Health Assembly in May 2004.

Thanking the NGOs for the strong support they had already shown since WHO began developing the Strategy last year in response to countries’ concerns, Dr. Brundtland said the consultation, including an all-day discussion tomorrow between NGOs and WHO officials, was an important part of the strategy development process.

She emphasized that food, in its complexity, was not like tobacco, nor was it similar to infant feeding, other key issues where WHO has worked closely with NGOs.

"Our approach to food is different from that to tobacco," she said. "Shifting the pattern of diet and physical activity behaviour across the global population demands a more nuanced and multifaceted approach. We intend to pursue a constructive dialogue with all parties to develop a strategy that reflects the interests of all stakeholders on this complex issue."

Cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, respiratory disease, obesity and other non-communicable conditions now account for 59 per cent of the 56.5 million global deaths each year, and almost half, or 45.9 per cent, of the global burden of disease. The majority of chronic disease problems now occur in developing countries. Unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use are among the leading causes.