WHO-backed study sheds new light on ultra-processed foods’ link to chronic diseases

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has developed a data-driven dietary impact assessment (DIA) for policymakers, researchers and practitioners in Europe to answer questions about the health and environmental impacts of diets. The tool was launched in a public webinar this week and will also be showcased at the COP28 conference later this month. It is ready for use in a few countries that have not yet been disclosed.

The incentive for the tool is to alleviate unhealthy diets that are a leading risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) — from diabetes to cancer and cardiovascular diseases — and are responsible for one in five deaths globally. In addition, many diets and food systems are unsustainable.

“The DIA tool has been launched after many years of development, in consultation with Member States. The tool allows various health, diet and environmental scenarios to be modeled based on country-level data,” a WHO Europe spokesperson, tells Nutrition Insight.

“This tool incorporates a wealth of scientific evidence and uses up-to-date data on health and environmental indicators. It allows user-specific scenarios to be generated, creating evidence to inform policy development and strengthening.”

Interconnected systems
Roughly two billion people are overweight or obese worldwide, with the condition affecting one in three primary school children, the WHO estimates. Food production and consumption patterns are closely connected with deteriorating health and ecosystems.DIA operates on statistical software called GAMS. 

“This is a groundbreaking and comprehensive tool and time has been taken to ensure integrity and accuracy. It is also freely available for countries , thereby promoting equitable access for governments in our region. In the past few high income countries had to hire expensive global consultancy firms to conduct such analysis for their policy needs,” the spokesperson notes.

Eating high in salt, added sugars and trans fats (HFSS) is responsible for significant deaths, while food products may contribute to soil pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and packaging waste. “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 national economies,” says Wickramasinghe.

“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,” says Dr. Kremlin Wickramasinghe, regional adviser on nutrition, physical activity and obesity, WHO Europe.

The new DIA tool is designed to look at how nations can make the population’s diet healthier, more sustainable and affordable. For each diet scenario, the DIA evaluates 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.

“The DIA can model various scenarios based on a country’s own dietary data. Manipulating the parameters in the model and selecting different scenarios will allow policymakers and researchers to assess the impact of different dietary scenarios and therefore determine what actions would be needed to impact on different human and planetary health indicators,” says the spokesperson.

“They can look at what happens to diet-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases — how they can increase or decrease — alongside changes to environmental impact such as greenhouse gas emissions or water use.”

Refining existing policy
The model runs on a statistical software called GAMS. WHO Europe’s website is integrated to run that software on a cloud server or online server. All the research and evidence used in the model is referenced in the manual.The DIA will help policymakers calculate the impact of diets and environmental practices.

The DIA can assess how popular diets align with global health and environmental targets, such as their impact on cropland and freshwater. The information can then be used to adjust pressing policies that tackle environmental, health and economic challenges that arise from food systems.

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

Earlier this year, WHO reported that the world was off-track to reach its global target of reducing sodium intake by 30% in 2025, according to its latest global report on sodium intake reduction.

In addition, its I-CAN report (Initiative on Climate Action and Nutrition) states that nutrition insecurity will be further exacerbated if UN climate change goals are not met. Parallel to this, at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, representatives from different governmental agencies came together for a session on how progress toward the Paris Agreement targets can be accelerated.

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