It’s time for a new approach to nutrition

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I believe governments need to implement a comprehensive new approach to nutritional education and nutrition policy, something I call “strategic nutrition”. In my new paper published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, I argue traditional approaches to nutrition have not worked in combating the epidemic of various nutrition-related diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, and it’s time for governments to take a new approach to public health.

The plan has the aim to greatly improve the national diet. This means reducing consumption of unhealthy food, especially foods with a high content of fat, sugar and refined cereal products. A particular target is the heavy consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as cola drinks. There must also be a much reduced intake of salt and trans-fatty acids. Instead, we need to increase consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fish.

The major approach so far in efforts to improve the national diet has been based on providing information, education, and encouragement. This comes in such forms as food guides, food labels, and different types of health promotion. However, this has achieved relatively little impact.

We see this most clearly with obesity. The obesity epidemic, particularly in the United States, is just one example of how traditional education and policy isn’t working. Snack food companies, for example, spend billions of dollars every year on advertising, an amount that dwarfs the budgets for public education. The various factors implicated in obesity are so pervasive that it is almost as if society had been carefully designed to create an epidemic of obesity.

Corporations have been given the opportunity to curb some of the more harmful practices, including deceptive practices in marketing nutritional supplements, and it’s now time for governments to step in with a combination of legislation and public awareness campaigns.
We can reasonably assume that the judicious use of taxes and subsidies can improve diets at a population level. A government policy approach to disease prevention is far more cost-effective than a medical approach.

I propose a comprehensive action plan so as to encourage consumers to select healthier foods. The goal is to create an environment that supports healthy choices in diet and other aspects of lifestyle. Countering the obesogenic environment is of particular importance. This plan – “strategic nutrition” – includes the following proposals:

  1. The establishment of a new agency that provides accurate information on nutrition for the general population. It will also ensure that health professionals receive the most up-to-date information. This will help counter the problem that the public is exposed to vast amounts of distorted information from TV adverts, magazines and books.
  2. Health promotion campaigns need to be expanded based on lessons learned from previous campaigns.
  3. Improved design of food guides and food labels.
  4. The stricter regulation of adverts for unhealthy foods, especially when the target audience is children.
  5. Government policy action in areas of major importance such as setting strict limits on the food content of salt and trans-fatty acids.
  6. The use of taxes and subsidies to encourage better population nutrition. This could include some combination of subsidies to encourage consumption of healthier foods, such as fruit and vegetables, and taxes on less healthy products.
  7. Action to curb the blatantly dishonest marketing of supplements.
  8. There must be resistance against efforts by corporations to thwart the implementation of the proposed changes.

This plan opens up a path to a major advance in public health.

Strategic Nutrition: A Vision for the Twenty-first Century was just published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

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This post was written by Norman Temple who is a Professor of Nutrition at Athabasca University