How India is planning to fight lifestyle diseases


In the early 1990s, when I used to be a health writer, Dr K Srinath Reddy, one of the country’s foremost public health advocates, used to lament the absence of any concern for “lifestyle diseases”, especially those that are diet related and hence reversible, in the public sphere.

He would refer wistfully to the Danish model of reducing the burden of cardio-vascular diseases by rigorously introducing food labelling, cutting down salt intake at the population level, and introducing safe and nutritious food in schools.

Policy discussions in those days were still dominated by contagious diseases, from malaria to the new “pandemic” (as it was then described by a number of vested interest) of AIDS, and barring few people, such as Dr Reddy and the eminent late nutritionist, Dr Vulimiri Ramalingaswamy, no one really cared to underline the potential dangers of the new diets (now covered by the umbrella acronym HFSS, or High Fat, Salt and Sugar) that were being introduced into the country by fast food multinationals, cola giants and purveyors of breakfast cereals.

In the last 25 years, what were once lone voices of public intellectuals — such as Dr Reddy, Dr Vandana Shiva, alter-globalisation crusader and founder of Navdanya, and the director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Dr Sunita Narain — now got amplified into a chorus for change.

Informed Indians, influenced by the western debate on the subject sparked off by Fast Food Nation, the turn-of-the-millennium book by Eric Schlosser, started speaking up and acting against junk food, sugar-laden colas and breakfast cereals, genetically modified food, chemically altered “low fat” food, and “high-yielding agriculture” propelled by an overload of potentially life-threatening chemicals and fertilisers.

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Multiple factors have ensured that food will finally find its place at the centre of the national health policy debate — and it will cease to be the sole concern of doctors, nutritionists and your friendly neighbourhood dietician.

The Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has issued a new set of progressive Draft Food Safety and Standards (Display and Labelling) Regulations, which have already triggered nationwide discussions on making it mandatory for sugar and added sugar to be mentioned specifically on product labels, for nutrition labels to be attached to junk food delivery boxes, and for film and sport celebrities to stay away from promoting colas.

The food regulator is also getting new, and realistic, standards in place for the certification of organic foodstuff, and it is all set to flag off its nationwide “Eat Right” initiative on July 10.

One of the pillars of the movement, which for the first time will also cover food served at holy places and on the Indian Railways, will be the implementation of the national goal of freeing India from the scourge of “transfats” (the real artery blockers, such as margarine and vegetable oil, or vanaspati, in packaged and fast foods) by 2022.

This movement can only gather momentum because of international initiatives such as the recently published, action-orientated “Solutions Menu” of the Nordic Council, or the SDG2 Advocacy Hub’s efforts to get chefs around the world aligned to sustainability issues, or the 20-member Lancet Commission’s monumental work on healthy and sustainable diets (look out for its report on India).

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Getting a country such as India to “Eat Right” is not easy. No regulatory mechanism can be strong enough for a country where, as I learnt the other day, big food operators sell their used oil to small restaurants and street vendors for a profit! Unless all of us view “Eat Right” as more than just another slogan, but a call for national action, we’ll all continue to wallow in the sea of lifestyle diseases.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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