Experts call for health warnings on breakfast cereals to tackle world’s obesity pandemic

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

The human body diversity. Pic: ©GettyImages/t.light
The human body diversity. Pic: ©GettyImages/t.light

Related tags Food industry Obesity Malnutrition Climate change Breakfast cereals Food security Big Food Tobacco smoking

‘We’re running out of time’: Big Food is compared to Big Tobacco in a polemic report that links it to the global obesity epidemic, along with malnutrition and climate change.

A new report from the Lancet Commission on Obesity has called for health warnings on breakfast cereals,​ stricter regulations for the marketing of food and beverages to children, and higher taxes on red meat in a bid to tackle the world’s obesity crisis.

The controversial report comes a week after the EAT-Lancet Commission warned humans must radically change their diets – including a 90% reduction in animal-based protein consumption – to avert catastrophic damage to the planet.

One global syndemic

The latest report claims to have analyzed the wider systems underpinning the global obesity pandemic and says obesity, undernutrition and climate change have – for too long – been viewed as separate entities.

According to the authors, the three share many key drivers and their outcomes interact.

Agricultural production and distribution burns fossil fuels that contribute to rising global temperatures, drought and extreme weather.

These, in turn, drive up rates of undernutrition by increasingly threatening food security.

Climate change also affects prices of basic food commodities, especially fruit and vegetables, potentially increasing consumption of processed foods.

Breaking decades of policy inertia

“Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories,”​ said Lancet Obesity Commission co-chair, Prof Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

“In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes.

“Climate change has the same story of profits and power ignoring the environmental damage caused by current food systems, transportation, urban design and land use.

“Joining the three pandemics together as the global syndemic allows us to consider common drivers and shared solutions, with the aim of breaking decades of policy inertia.”

There is no doubt the triple-pronged crisis is taking a toll on humanity.

Some four million deaths are linked to obesity annually, yet more than 800 million people are chronically undernourished.

“What we’re doing now is unsustainable,”​ said William Dietz, an author of the study and public health expert at George Washington University in Washington DC, US.

“The only thing we can hope is that a sense of urgency will permeate. We're running out of time.”

Big food policy similar to tobacco control

The Commission is calling for a global philanthropic $1bn fund to establish a Framework Convention on Food Systems (FCFS) to support civil society in advocating for change and restrict the influence the food industry has on policymaking.

‘Vested commercial interests need to be excluded from the policy table, and civil society needs to have a stronger voice in policymaking,’ wrote the authors.

‘An international agreement to address conflicts of interest must be instigated. It could be based on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which explicitly excluded the tobacco industry from policy development.’

“Although food clearly differs from tobacco because it is a necessity to support human life, unhealthy food and beverages are not,”​ added Prof Dietz.

“The similarities with Big Tobacco lie in the damage they induce and the behaviors of the corporations that profit from them.”

Stricter regulation on food marketing to kids

The Commission is also calling for stricter regulations for the marketing of ‘unhealthy’ food and beverages to children with front-of-pack warning labels.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016, the number of overweight children under the age of five was estimated to be over 41 million globally.

Once associated with high-income countries, obesity is now also prevalent in low- and middle-income countries, with almost half of the above demographic living in Asia and a quarter living in Africa.

“Excess body weight affects two billion people worldwide, while two billion people also suffer from micronutrient deficiency and both problems are expected to be made significantly worse by climate change,”​ said Lancet Obesity Commissioner Prof Steven Allender, director of the Global Obesity Center at Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation in Victoria, Australia.

Urgent warning signs

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, added: “The prevailing business model of large international food and beverage companies that focus on maximizing short-term profits leads to overconsumption of nutrient-poor food and beverages in both high-income countries and increasingly in low and middle-income countries.

The Lancet Commission on Obesity is a partnership between The Lancet, a weekly medical journal owned by Elsevier, George Washington University, the University of Auckland and the World Obesity Federation.

The latest report – published in The Lancet on January 27 2019 – is the result of a three-year project by 43 public health experts from 14 countries.

The EAT-Lancet report also was published in The Lancet.

“The coexistence of obesity and stunting in the same children in some countries is an urgent warning signal – and both will be exacerbated by climate change.

“Tackling the global syndemic requires an urgent rethink of how we eat, live, consume and move, including a radical change to a sustainable and health-promoting business model fit for the future challenges we face today.”


The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission report

Authors: Prof Boyd Swinburn, Vivica Kraak, Prof Steven Allender, Vincent Atkins, Phillip Baker, Jessica Bogard, et al.



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