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Healthier Diets for Our Planet: New WHO/Europe Data Tool to Drive Innovative Country Policies

The way we produce and consume food – through our food systems – is tightly interconnected with environment and health. Foods high in salt, added sugars and trans fats can harm our health and lead to early death. At the same time, the production of food products may contribute to soil pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and packaging waste. But there is a way to help understand the impact of food systems on the environment and health: WHO/Europe’s new tool for diet impact assessment (DIA) can help.

Unhealthy diets: overlooked risks 

In various parts of the WHO European Region and beyond, diets and food systems in general are neither healthy nor sustainable. Unhealthy diets are a leading risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – from diabetes to cancer and cardiovascular diseases – and are responsible for 1 in 5 deaths globally.

Around the world, about 2 billion people are living with overweight and obesity. Furthermore, in the Region, the issue affects 1 in 3 primary school-aged children.

“Besides the clear risks of unhealthy diets, there is a wider picture of food production in our Region that is even more worrying. The way we produce and consume food worldwide has led us to go beyond what is thought to be a safe limit for Earth’s stability,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, WHO/Europe Regional Adviser on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

“At the same time, if a healthy and sustainable diet means an expensive diet, this is bad news not only for the majority of households, but for countries’ economies.”

Food systems undermine the Earth’s stability

The environmental impact of food production is daunting. Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of all freshwater resources. Over-application of fertilizers in some regions has led to the pollution of surface and groundwater, and to dead zones in oceans.

The global population is projected to grow from 7 billion currently to almost 10 billion by mid-century, so the impact on health and the environment will likely get worse. The demand for foods, such as meat, dairy and processed foods, which can harm both people’s health and the environment, is also increasing.

If we don’t make changes to how we produce and eat food, like transitioning to healthier and more plant-based diets, we might jeopardize the well-being of our planet and risk not being able to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

Diet impact assessment (DIA) tool: what’s inside?

The DIA tool is produced for policy-makers, researchers and practitioners in countries of the WHO European Region who need data-driven quality instruments to assess diets and explore answers to the following questions.

  • How can countries impact their population’s diets to make them healthier, more sustainable and affordable?
  • How do today’s popular diets align with global health and environmental targets?  
  • What potential policy changes can help tackle the main environmental, health and economic challenges that arise from countries’ food systems?

For each diet scenario, the DIA simultaneously looks at health indicators – such as premature deaths that could be avoided by improving diets; risk factors for cancer, heart disease and diabetes; and bodyweight-related risks – and environmental analyses, such as for greenhouse gas emissions, cropland and freshwater.

“The DIA tool will enable countries to build more sustainable and data-driven policies tailored to their populations. It analyses not only the health, economic and environmental impact of diets. It allows to project different scenarios of dietary change, estimating the health, environmental and cost burden of each scenario,” explained Dr Wickramasinghe.

Source : WHO