Public health nutrition: facing the challenges


by Dr Tee E Siong

MALAYSIA - Public health nutrition programmes probably started in our country in a big way in the 1960s, and in Europe and US more than six decades ago.  

It is thus probably a little surprising that the First World Congress on Public Health Nutrition was only held recently in Barcelona, Spain. Organised by the Spanish Society of Community Nutrition, the congress was supported by the International Union of Nutritional Sciences.  

I found the scientific programme interesting and most of the talks rather educational. As many of the issues discussed are of direct relevance to the nutrition scene in Malaysia, I would like to highlight some of these issues to the nutrition community here, both in the public and private sectors, as well as the public at large. 

Obesity – tackling a global public health issue 

Obesity was a hot topic in the Congress. Linked to this were sessions dealing with metabolic syndrome and diabetes.  

Several presentations dwelt on prevention and control of childhood obesity. Success stories and not-so-successful intervention programmes in schools were discussed.  

In one of my instalments in this column, I have also highlighted the high prevalence of overweight and obesity amongst our children. The problem is certainly going to get worse if we do not seriously intervene.  

A comprehensive long-term intervention initiative, involving at least the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, with the support of professional bodies, is required. Nutrition interventions targeted at schools are already outlined in the National Plan of Action for Nutrition Phase II. We need to seriously get down to doing the needful.  

One session in the Congress highlighted the concerns voiced by authorities regarding the lack of physical activity in schoolchildren. This is one of the main reasons for the increase in obesity among children. Over here, we can see for ourselves how our children have little opportunity to be involved in outdoor activities.  

We have also heard of how some of the physical education classes in schools are being converted to extra classes for mathematics, language, etc, as academic excellence is deemed more important than engaging in physical activity. There is every reason to invest in physical activity sessions, as an active body makes an active mind, which in turn leads to academic excellence.  

Children – the target of marketing 

In relation to this, another hotly debated topic in the Congress was food and beverage marketing directed at children. The marketing of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages to young children has been pointed out as one of the reasons for the increase in obesity among this population group. This commercial marketing may also undermine healthy eating messages that are contained in the dietary guidelines of countries.  

Look around you – you will surely spot a great deal of marketing of foods and beverages to children too. In this country, packaged food advertising is similarly regulated as the food labels, through the Malaysian Food Regulations 1985. With the enforcement of the new regulations on nutrition claims since 2005, we see a better control of such advertisements, although I wish the regulations were better enforced.  

Another large group of foods eaten by children are the ready-to-eat foods in restaurants. You also see fierce advertising of these foods to children, which also need close monitoring.  

Ensuring consumers benefit from nutrition labels 

While talking about food advertising, I would also like to share with you highlights from a related session in the Congress, on “consumer attitudes to nutrition information on food labels and packaging”, a session that I chaired.  

Speakers from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia spoke about consumer understanding, perception and utilisation of information on food packages, especially nutrient information and claims. You would have known that the United States started compulsory declaration of the nutrition value of all packaged foods since 1991, some 15 years ago. Consumer understanding and utilisation of such information are still being improved through planned educational programmes for 2007.  

In Malaysia, the mandatory labelling for a number of foods was enforced in 2005. Specific nutrition claims have also been permitted since then. However, we know little about whether consumers understand such information on the food label. We would really need to have such data so that we can evaluate the effectiveness of such labelling efforts several years later. We urgently need programmes to educate consumers on proper use of information on food labels, including those related to nutrient content and claims.  

Dietary guidelines – are people really listening?  

The topic of promoting healthy diet and active living must, of course, be featured prominently in a public health nutrition congress.  

There were discussions on how to use newer technologies to promote healthy eating. Back home, we have to continue to rely on a mix of channels to promote our dietary guidelines. We have to rely on information technologies to reach out to the masses. At the same time, we still need the leaflets, brochures and posters.  

Whatever the channel, we have to ensure that people read our materials. For this, we need to use innovative and more attractive approaches. We have to compete with nutrition messages from many other sources, including promises of quick cures and solutions to nutrition problems. We have to compete with conflicting dietary recommendations that may serve to confuse the people and impede our efforts. After 30 years in public health nutrition, I am still asking: are people listening to our messages?  

The private sector’s role 

How can the private sector contribute to improving public health nutrition and well-being? This was also discussed in the Congress.  

In another session, a related issue of public-private sector partnership in healthy nutrition and well-being was deliberated. In my years of working with the private sector through the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, I must say that the food industry here has contributed towards promoting nutrition science and healthy diets.  

Companies have collaborated with us on various educational projects, although such collaborations have always been challenging and controversial. Whilst we have the good intention of producing educational materials for dissemination to the public with the sponsorship of the food industry, there are some quarters who believe that we have compromised on our position. But I shall not go into a detailed debate on this issue at this time.  

Suffice to say that we shall continue to maintain our professional integrity while striving to make unbiased nutrition information available to the people. We will only collaborate with companies that are ethical, that understand and agree with the professional stand of nutritionists.  

So, are the nutrition issues too challenging to overcome? Certainly not. Nothing is insurmountable. But it is not going to be easy. There is a great deal more to be done. Nutritionists need to be determined in tackling the issues. The public plays a major role in overcoming nutritional disorders. 

source - Star Publications (Malaysia)

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This page contains a single entry by ID Admin published on November 19, 2006 10:04 PM.

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