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Watching our weight: future diets and global public policy

Time (GMT +00) 15:00 17:00


Professor Barry M. Popkin - University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Steve Wiggins - ODI. Research Fellow - Agricultural Development and Policy Programme

Dr. Roxana Valdés-Ramos - Unviersidad Autonoma del Estado de Mexico.

Professor Tim Lang - City University London. Professor of Food Policy

Andrew Opie - Director of Food & Sustainability, British Retail Consortium


ODI's Future Diets report traced how the changes in diet - more fat, more meat, more sugar and bigger portions - have led to a looming health crisis. It also looked at how policy-makers have tried to curb our eating excesses - with mixed results. This ODI event launched the report, featuring presentations by key experts on diet, nutrition and policy responses to the growth in obese and overweight people.

ODI Director Kevin Watkins kicked off the discussion by highlighting the triple influences of technology, advertising and aspiration on what we choose to eat.  It is the process of globalisation that has brought about dietary convergence – but what are the consequences?

What do we know?

Steve Wiggins, ODI Research Fellow and author of the ‘Future diets’ report, explained that the number of overweight or obese people in the developing world has more than tripled, meaning there are now almost twice as many people who are overweight or obese in developing countries than in the developed world. 

He added:

“Nowhere in the world has stemmed the rising tide of obesity. The policies taken by countries have been at best cautious, perhaps better labelled as timid. And, as a result, we don’t have a lot in the tool chest to say this will definitely work (which is not the case for underweight).”

The Mexican example

With increased affluence has come greater opportunity for people to buy food that may taste good thanks to high fat and sugar content – but isn’t so good for our collective weight.  As Dr Roxana Valdés-Ramos of the Universidad Autónoma Del Estado de México reflected, the effects of this increase in obesity can be devastating for individuals and extremely challenging for public health professionals – so much so that in Mexico diabetes has consistently been the biggest killer over the last decade.

Despite making efforts to drive change she said public policy still lacks an education component:

“Trying to eliminate junk food and sweet beverages from schools has been going on for about 3 years now. The industry has tried to decrease portion sizes or caloric content. There is also the issue of increased costs, and starting from this year there is a law to increase taxes for sweetened beverages and junk food. We'll have to see what happens in the long term because there’s the lack of the education components which might be more important than taxing or increasing costs of foods because people will continue buying these foods; so what we really need is these policy changes to be improved with better formal education.”

‘Obeseogenic’ retail culture

For Professor Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina in the US, the spread of the food retail sector into developing countries has helped to accelerate an increasingly ‘obeseogenic’ culture. Whilst the growth of supermarket chains into Africa and Asia brings benefits to sanitation, it increases access to processed carbohydrates and sweeteners. The growing habit of frying food in the world’s poorest countries also adds to the global calorie intake.

So what can be done?

According to Professor Tim Lang of City University, London, a good start would be to tackle the growth we have seen in sugar consumption, but the panel was unanimous that efforts to educate children and control portion size would be steps in the right direction as well. Ultimately though, Lang says there will be no single quick fix. The ODI report says the answer will be a combination of education, regulation and taxation.

The retail sector

Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium agrees that there is plenty that needs to be done to defuse the obesity time bomb but points out that there are few easy answers. He claims to have seen an interesting fall in the number of people highlighting personal responsibility as a key way of battling our growing bulge – and pointed out that most of the audience probably shop in a supermarket. Supermarkets have taken steps, he says, but little is known about what really works, and fast food outlets often tend to dodge some of the pressure.

So whether it is up to individuals, businesses or governments, the one thing everyone agreed on was that something should be done. The challenge will be to identify what works.