by | February 28, 2019 | Opinion

Tackling the Global Syndemic of obesity, under-nutrition and climate change

By Hannah Brinsden, Head of Policy at World Obesity Federation and Fellow of the Lancet Commission on Obesity

In January 2019 The Lancet Commission on Obesity published a groundbreaking report ‘The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change’. The following introduces the Global Syndemic and what it means for food systems.

Obesity represents a failure, not of individuals, but of the systems and environments we live in today. When exploring these key systems – food, transport, land use and urban design – it is clear that the obesity pandemic is not the only harmful outcome. Indeed, two other global health pandemics – undernutrition and climate change – share many of the same drivers.   The synergies and interactions between these three co-existing pandemics represent a syndemic – a synergy of pandemics that co-occur in time and place, interact with each other and share common underlying societal drivers.  This Global Syndemic of obesity, undernutrition and climate change poses a dire risk to human, planetary and environmental health.

Taking a Global Syndemic perspective, with an emphasis on double and triple duty actions which can address two or three of the pandemics, presents us with a real opportunity for change. This means addressing the problems head on and not shying away from some of the fundamental issues that have driven the broken systems we see today. Powerful opposition by commercial vested interests, a lack of political leadership and insufficient social demand for change all underpin the slow progress seen to date across all three areas of the Syndemic.

Food systems are a key point of intersection for the three components of the Global Syndemic – too much food which is bad for human health and our planet, and too little of the food we need to support human health without damaging our planet.  We need radical changes to the subsidy models seen today, we need better regulatory frameworks to support policy implementation against commercial influence and we need clearer goals on what affordable, accessible, sustainable and healthy diets look like. Some examples of the triple win actions for food systems from the report include:

  • Reducing red meat consumption through shifts in taxes and subsidies, labelling and social marketing: This can help improve diet quality, reduce risk of disease, provide more land for efficient and sustainable agriculture and reduce greenhouse emissions
  • A framework convention on food systems covering a wide range of policies required for comprehensive action: Would ensure that policies are enacted to improve availability and access of healthy food, reduce poverty and inequalities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Sustainable dietary guidelines to promote healthy options: This can support the promotion of healthier choices while reducing the promotion of less health choices, help support breast feeding and food education and decrease demand for unsustainable food options

The Global Syndemic perspective provides a new way of looking at the food system and the actions we need to make significant changes. Only by making fundamental changes to our food system, as well as urban, land use and transport systems, can we hope to improve the health of people and the planet. We need to stop looking at issues in silos and focus on the double and triple win actions that can bring the most gain. Time is running out and we need to think bigger, better and bolder to achieve the changes we want, and that our citizens and planet deserve.

Contact Hannah Brinsden @worldobesity @hannahbrins

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