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Food and society

The America of high-calorie snacks

A PAHO study quantifies the increase in consumption of unhealthy foods in the Americas and establishes six action points to combat childhood obesity.

In October 2014, the Member States of the Advisory Committee of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) - a body linked to the United Nations - approved an action plan for the prevention of obesity among North and South American children and adolescents. This is the region registering the highest rates of obesity in young people, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). Actions planned include the procurement of scientifically approved data regarding the efficacy of economic measures or specific regulations for limiting the consumption of unhealthy foods. The pan-American organisation considers official regulation to be necessary, since education campaigns alone have not had the desired effect; this is compounded by a certain lack of awareness of the problem among parents, which we discussed previously in this article.

The results of the study
In January 2016, the PAHO published the results of its work. After careful nutritional profiling of foods (in other words, foods were classified according to their nutritional components in terms of preventing illnesses and promoting health) and analysis of social interventions and their relative effects, the experts constructed a model based on six points which, if applied, could obtain the hoped-for result: a reduction in obesity rates in the American continent.

According to the PAHO, the initiatives to be undertaken are the following:
  •  Limit opportunities to sell unhealthy food and drinks to children.
  •  Regulate the types of food available in schools.
  •  Use labels which explicitly show the nutritional value of individual foods. The PAHO examined various labelling formats, from classic nutritional tables to more simplified forms, and concluded that the message must be extremely direct. A successful model, for example, is the “traffic light” label, which classifies foods using the three colours, where green is for foods that can be eaten without too many limits, orange for foods to be aware of and red for foods which should be avoided or strictly limited.
  •  Design a food taxation system which favours healthy foods.
  •  Evaluate the allocation of farming subsidies based partially on the nutritional value of products.
  •  Identify a list of healthy foods to be included in the allocation of food to people experiencing economic difficulty or accessing welfare support.

Prioritising unprocessed foods
“Scientific knowledge about the influence of different diets on the genesis of obesity/excess weight and other chronic illnesses is extremely solid”, explains the PAHO document. “Overall, studies point to the need to protect and promote the consumption of unprocessed foods, while discouraging the use of highly processed foods.
In America, conclusive evidence indicates that fresh foods are rapidly being replaced by processed foods, while at the same time the habit of cooking at home using raw ingredients is being lost. In Brazil, for example, calorie intake from processed foods increased from 19 to 32 percent between 1987 and 2008; in Canada it rose from 24 to 55 percent between 1938 and 2001. In less than a century, the culinary traditions of entire countries have practically disappeared. Data from 13 Latin American countries shows that between 2000 and 2013 sales of sweetened fizzy drinks increased by 33 percent and sales of processed snack foods by 56 percent. And these changes correlate perfectly with the increase in body mass among local populations. Even in the poorest islands of the Caribbean, processed foods - partly due to their cheapness - have replaced traditional dishes: in fact a recent survey reports that 56 percent of respondents replaced a proper meal with a high-calorie snack in the past month.

Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition guidelines
As a result of its in-depth research into the issues surrounding nutrition, with a particular focus on the categories most at risk - children and adolescents - the BCFN has produced a summary in the form of macro guidelines which should be followed in order to adopt a lifestyle and diet which contribute to healthy development, both physical and in terms of acquiring good habits for life. In many cases these guidelines coincide with the advice put forward by the PAHO.

  • Adopt a healthy and balanced diet which contains all the main food groups daily, thereby providing all the nutrients and micronutrients (calcium, iron, vitamins etc) necessary for a growing organism.
  • Avoid excess calories by not consuming high-calorie foods and foods with a high concentration of fat.
  • Balance daily nutrients, ensuring a correct balance between animal and vegetable proteins - which should be equal - simple and complex sugars (by consuming less sweets, more bread, potatoes, pasta or rice), animal and vegetable fats (less lard and butter, more olive oil).
  • Reduce to a minimum the consumption of excess salt in order to reduce the risk factors for hypertension, especially in adults.
  • Divide food into five daily meals: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack and dinner.
  • Avoid eating between these mealtimes.
  • Spend at least an hour a day doing physical activity, which can be sports or play.
  • Reduce sedentary activities as far as possible, especially time spent in front of screens (TV and computer).
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