The nutritional state of the nation: whose responsibility is it?

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The Food Matters Live conference began with a panel debate on The nutritional state of the nation: whose responsibility is it? hosted by Gavin Esler from BBC Newsnight. It featured speakers representing different stakeholder groups, including Registered Dietician Dr Clare Pettinger, Melanie Leach, the Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, Professor Jack Winkler who is visiting lecturer at UCL and Lee Sheppard the Director of Policy at apetito UK.

It is clear that in a nation where over 60% of adults and one third of 2-15 year olds are obese or overweight and over 1.5 million suffer from malnutrition, transformational change is needed, but the question of who should take responsibility for leading this food revolution was anything but simple during this opening conference discussion.

The panel members agreed that we are all responsible for the nutritional state of the nation; not just the government, health service and education system, but every consumer. Melanie Leach said, “most people realise that healthy food and an active lifestyle should be maintained but many struggle to achieve this ideal.” She attributed this to our lifestyles, saying that we have become more sedentary, we spend hours sitting down at work, catching up on social media, watching television and very little time either enjoying home cooked meals together as a family or doing any exercise.

Professor Jack Winkler stressed that education was key and getting the message across to the people who really need help would be a challenge. As well as addressing education around healthy eating we all need to incorporate physical activity into our daily lives. Generations have lost the knowledge of cooking and most people don’t get enough exercise. He also said, “it is vital to improve nutrient profiles of foods by reformulating; they will be eaten by millions and not just a small few.”

Lee Sheppard stressed that we should not forget those with malnutrition. He said, “eating should be about health and the current messages around obesity; reducing salt, reducing fat and sugar are contradictory when faced with people who are seriously malnourished. They need high fat, high energy products and they need to eat more not less.”

Dr Clare Pettinger agreed that change is required and added, “we need to understand the complexities of food. The government needs to set clear strategies and build sensible regulations to address these issues across all industries including farmers, manufacturers, retailers and the medical profession.” She also added that better leadership was needed from the community and society itself. We need to drive change from the bottom with clear guidelines coming from the top.

Professor Jack Winkler brought up the campaign to reduce salt, which was a successful government programme with 15% reduction in just 6 years. He explained that it worked by introducing a series of small incremental changes which were not perceptible to consumers. He said, “no claims were made that products were healthier yet people got the benefits anyway.”

He went on to stress that we are all responsible, but that telling consumers what to eat is an unattractive area for politicians and the vast majority of those at risk either don’t have time or don’t care enough about healthy eating to modify their lifestyles. He said, “consumers are unlikely to change in the near future so it’s also vital to improve nutrient profiles of processed foods and fast food. If the industry can reduce calories in large mass marketed popular foods by reformulating their recipes, millions will benefit, not just the concerned few.”

Melanie Leech concluded that reducing the sugar and fat content would be far more complex, but whilst it is more of a challenge than salt reduction, it is still possible to reformulate processed foods so they contain less calories.

Professor Jack Winkler stressed the part supermarkets could play by stocking healthier foods, encouraging local producers and reducing the number of unhealthy foods on shelves. They could also signpost consumers to healthier choices and avoid confectionary at checkouts as some of the major players have already done.

Lee Sheppard was also worried about malnutrition in our institutions. He said, “there is a huge problem in hospitals, the care system and for the elderly living at home. It is normal for some elderly people to put on a bit of weight. Many don’t eat enough of the right food and others in care aren’t able to feed themselves and become undernourished and dehydrated. Institutions caring for the older generation need to understand and address their nutritional and dietary needs.”

The challenge is to help the nation connect with food again. Dr Claire Pettinger had a call to action for everyone, “we need to act fast and get creative. We need to see food as part of the solution and not the problem and translate this into simple solutions so we can help the nation to grow, prepare and cook healthy meals again.”

This was a very thought provoking debate which really set the scene for the rest of the three days, outlining just how much needs to be done to address the nutritional state of a nation in crisis.

With over 80 leading figures from government, industry, retail, manufacturing, education and even celebrity chefs joining these panel sessions, all of whom are passionate about improving our nation’s relationship with food, there certainly is hope for a healthy future.

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