Let’s All Start Eating Better

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

By Yannick Foing, global lead, partner engagement for the Nutrition Improvement Programme at DSM Nutritional Products.

One in two people across the world today are unable to access essential health services. Meanwhile in richer countries, where access to health services is higher, ageing populations, chronic conditions are becoming more prevalent and demand for healthcare services outpacing supply presents a growing economic and societal burden. Catastrophic healthcare costs are a global problem.

World Health Day 2018 calls for universal access to health services through a shift from designing health systems around diseases and institutions towards health services designed around and for people.

21st century health problems are wide and varied, so are the solutions. But there is one common ingredient driving the state of people’s health around the world—from Africa to Europe to Asia: the food we eat. More accurately, the nutrients we consume.


We are what we eat. And so are our health systems.

Not getting the right nutrients from the food we eat is an immense and universal health challenge. At least one in three people globally experience malnutrition in some form.

The health risks associated with malnourishment are vast. Malnutrition and poor diets constitute the number one driver of the global burden of disease. So the high and ever-rising costs of healthcare and the challenge for universal access is fuelled, quite literally, by the food we put—or don’t put—into our mouths.

‘Malnutrition’ manifests itself in numerous forms. For many of us the term conjures harrowing images of wasted children living in hunger-stricken regions like sub-Saharan Africa. But what if I told you you’ve probably done business or had lunch with someone suffering from malnutrition in the last week?


The Double Burden Of Malnutrition: A Silent Health Issue

As well as causing wasting and stunted growth—particularly in children—malnutrition leads also to the opposite challenge: obesity. Today, two billion adults are overweight or obese. That is over one in four people globally.

In Singapore, we risk hitting obesity rates of 15 percent in the next seven years—this was the tipping point for the US when obesity cases increased rapidly to reach the epidemic level faced today.

Obesity, in both developed economies like Singapore and advancing ones—like many of our Southeast Asian neighbours—is on the rise. A greater range of food choices is becoming available in increasingly urban and cosmopolitan settings where spending power is high or growing, and work schedules busy—often resulting in less physical activity. The increasing ageing populations are also likely to present a new challenge as demand for food products that meet the unique nutritional needs of a burgeoning elderly population increases.


Bad Nutrition Is Bad Economics

The healthcare costs directly associated with what we eat are astronomical. In the United States, a household with one member who is obese faces additional annual healthcare costs equivalent to 8 percent of its annual income. Annual GDP losses from low weight, poor child growth, or micronutrient deficiencies average 11 percent in Asia and Africa—greater than the loss experienced during the 2008 to 2010 financial crisis—whereas preventing malnutrition delivers $16 in returns for every $1 invested.

Meanwhile, the wider cost of malnutrition to societies and individuals, as the number one driver of the global burden of disease, is vast. In China for example, a diagnosis of diabetes results in an annual 16.3 percent loss of income for those with the disease.


Prevention Over Cure

Nearly 83 percent of Asia’s population has a combined purchasing power of an estimated $3.47 trillion. Some 60 percent or more of this income is spent on food.

If we could all just spend this money on the right nutrition, we could slash countless health services needed to ‘fix’ people suffering from health problems associated with poor nutrition such as diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

So what is needed to make good nutrition a basic ingredient in the quest for universal access to good health?


Changing Perceptions

There is a longstanding myth that nutritious food is the preserve of the rich—shoppers frequenting the organic aisle of the supermarket. It is not true. Food manufacturers have come a long way and more and more staple foods are being developed to contain the right nutrients for a balanced diet.

In Asia for example, rice fortification is a new technology finding a foothold. Allowing several micronutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin B1, folic acid iron, and zinc, to be added into the rice—a dietary staple—at once, without impacting taste and cooking habits, fortified rice can alleviate micronutrient deficiencies.


A Helping—Fortified—Hand

Supported by the likes of the United Nations World Food Programme and the World Health Organization, food fortification is a key innovation in the wider challenge to address issues of malnutrition amongst low-to-middle-income populations with lower disposable incomes, as well as in developed economies like Singapore. Research has shown that these consumers are ready to pay more for nutritious products, but the foods they can afford are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, contributing to both over- and under- nutrition.

Before we can reap the benefits of strides forward in science, we need to drive wider consumer understanding of the problem at hand.


Educate and incubate

To drive nutritional education and behavioural change, we need integrated cross-sector efforts involving partners from both the public and private sectors. With wider community support, we can achieve far more, far faster. For example, involving businesses and schools in the promotion of healthy eating and the creation of environments that catalyse more healthy daily food choices, we will encourage real long-term adoption of good nutrition practices.

This week, as part of DSM’s efforts to deliver proper nutrition and improve food security, the company has launched a staff lunch programme in one of our Malaysia manufacturing plants which provides fortified rice enhanced with essential micronutrients to our workers.

Few health challenges facing the global community today match the scale of malnutrition. Despite its different faces, its consequences are unified in impact and cost. So as we collectively address better access to health services, let’s take a step back and think first about creating universal access to the right nutrition—the common universal denominator—in all our paths to good, or bad, health.

Royal DSM’s Nutrition Improvement Programme consists of a specialist team leveraging DSM’s micronutrient portfolio, nutrition solutions, programmes and partnerships to positively impact public health and those most at risk of malnutrition. The company is a global science-based company active in health, nutrition and materials.


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