The Commission today presents the results of a public consultation on promoting healthy diets and physical activity, with a focus on the prevention of overweight, obesity and chronic diseases. With around 14 million children in Europe currently overweight, of which more than 3 million are obese, this is now an urgent public health issue requiring co-ordinated action at EU level, as well as within Member States. The consultation was launched with the publication of a Green Paper on 8 December 2005 which put forward a number of different policy options for the consideration of stakeholders across Europe. Over 260 responses were received from players including the governments of the EU, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, public health community, the food industry, universities and the general public. Given the complexity of the issue, most contributors call for a multi-sector approach, involving action and coherence across EU policies. Many contributors also call for special attention to be paid to children and youth where fast increases in obesity are being observed. There were also calls for better consumer information on nutrition, and for this to be clear, consistent and evidence based
EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said: “I welcome the results of the consultation. The prevalence of obesity has been rising fast in Europe and there is already evidence that this is leading to increasing rates of conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The results of the consultation provide us with valuable feedback from all interested parties and will inform our strategy to promote healthy lifestyles. The European Commission’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Network, as well as the EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health will be key forums to discuss these issues further with government, industry and civil society and to identify ways to engage stakeholders and make progress on these issues. The Commission will now further consider which policy options to adopt, and fine-tune its action with the right balance between voluntary agreements and legislative action.”
Rising overweight and obesity levels
Overweight and obesity levels are increasing at an alarming rate, with up to 27% of European men and 38% of women now considered to be obese depending on the EU member state concerned. The number of overweight children is also growing rapidly, rising by 400 000 a year. Obesity is a risk factor for many serious conditions including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and certain types of cancer. Poor nutrition and insufficient physical activity are among the leading causes of avoidable death in Europe. Obesity related illnesses are estimated to account for as much as 7% of total healthcare costs in the EU.
A multi-sector approach
Most respondents agreed that the EU should foster a multi-sector approach, which involves other EU policies such as agriculture, education, transport and urban planning and a range of different stakeholders across national, regional and local levels. Respondents also called for more consistency and coherence among policies, for better coordination of actions at EU level, for collection and exchange of best practices across Member States and for guidelines for nutrition and physical activity based on scientific evidence.
Information for consumers
Respondents believe that consumer information, including labelling, should be clear, consistent and based on evidence, and broadly disseminated. While respondents from industry favour self-regulation, healthcare professionals, consumer organisations and NGOs are sceptical about the impact of self-regulation on advertising of foods high in calories but poor in nutrients.
To help consumers make healthy dietary choices, respondents suggest to: encourage fruit and vegetable consumption; limit total fat and/or saturated fat intake; promote a balanced diet; increase consumption of whole grain, starchy or fibre-rich products; reduce consumption of sugar and soft drinks; reduce salt intake; and reduce portion sizes.
Diet at school
Respondents believed that best practice for improving the nutritional value of school meals are: education programmes for healthy diet for children, offering free or subsidized fruit, vegetables and drinking water; training of kitchen staff and general guidelines and/or standards for school meals including regular control enforcement.
At work in good shape
According to the consultation’s results, to encourage healthy lifestyles at the work place its is necessary to increase the availability of healthy foods in canteens or in vending machines, reduce the availability of foods that are high in energy (fat and sugar) or in large portion sizes, promoting sport activity or daily physical activity in or around the work site or encouraging walking or biking to and from work.
Data and impact assessment
Health impact assessment (HIA) and cost-benefit analyses of policies could be of help to increase awareness among decision makers. Availability and comparability of data on obesity could be improved by standardisation of the type of data and the method of assessment. Respondents proposed that the EU Public Health Action Programme support further integration and dissemination of data, knowledge on effective strategies and strengthen links between sectors. Dissemination could be carried out through networks such as the European Network for the Promotion of Health-Enhancing Physical Activity and the European Commission’s Nutrition and Physical Activity network.
Other proposals endorsed by respondents include training health professionals about the health impact of nutrition and physical activity on health, promoting physical activity with financial incentives, sport-friendly pricing policies and improvement of quality and accessibility of sport facilities. Many contributors have also expressed the need for general, neutral, simple and flexible food-based dietary guidelines at a European level that can be adapted to different cultures, regions and countries.
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