The problem is not what people ate at Christmas, it is about what they will eat the rest of the year

The EESC suggests increasing focus on sustainable, healthy diets for 2020

The Christmas festivities are over, and now it is time for many Europeans to rethink their diets and beware of obesity. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) takes the beginning of a new year and decade as an opportunity to remind us that obesity is the cause of many diseases, and affirms its support for EU initiatives that accelerate a shift towards healthier, more sustainable diets for citizens.

It is no big issue to feast at Christmas, but we want to make people aware that these days should be the exception and healthy diets the rule throughout the year, said Vice-president for Communication Isabel Caño.

According to the World Health Organization, obesity worldwide has nearly tripled since 1975. About 1.9 billion adults were classed as overweight or obese in 2014, while 462 million were underweight.

In addition, 41 million children under the age of 5 years were classified as overweight or obese in 2016, while an estimated 155 million were suffering from stunting. While 45% of all deaths among under-fives are linked to undernutrition, primarily in low- and middle-income countries, rates of childhood obesity in those same countries are rising.

In the EU, obesity affects 10-30% of adults according to the latest estimates.

Obesity is not inevitable, however. To address the challenge, the EESC has called for the creation of an expert group and Europe-wide sustainable dietary guidelines.

Such guidelines would create clearer direction for farms, processors and retailers and provide a framework for the production, processing and distribution of healthier, more sustainable food at a fairer price.

The EESC supports existing initiatives by the European Commission. These include provisions in the latest common agricultural policy (CAP) reform proposal to improve the response of EU agriculture to societal demands on food and health.

However, a coordinated approach to these initiatives is lacking. EESC president Luca Jahier noted that the EU needs a comprehensive approach to reducing obesity.

Poor diets represent a hidden burden on society and are among the main causes of premature death in the EU, he said. The complexity of the food-health-environment-society nexus requires a comprehensive approach on diets, not just related to consumer behaviour. A transition to food systems that deliver nutritious food for healthy diets would require policy changes on both the supply and the demand side.

A common European approach to food labelling, for example, would improve transparency and discourage the use of unnecessarily cheap, unhealthy and unsustainable ingredients such as trans fats, palm oil and excess sugars. An extension to food labelling to include a product’s environmental and social factors would benefit consumers and help drive their choices towards healthier, more sustainable options.

The EESC also emphasises the importance of education and believes attention must be paid to vulnerable groups, especially those on low incomes.

The EESC always insists on the importance of educating children about sustainable diets from an early age, helping young people learn the value of food, said Isabel Caño. There is no better investment than the one in the health of our future generation.

The costs of unsustainable diets are a burden on society, the economy and the environment. The EESC therefore calls for policy strategies to implement sustainable dietary guidelines, with a focus on the benefits for farmers and businesses. Besides helping the commercial sector, such guidelines would provide common, clear criteria for use in public procurement.