Increased modernisation is fuelling a new global nutrition issue, writes Associate Professor Surinder Baines.

World Food Day

16 October 2013

Rapid economic growth and increased modernisation is fuelling a new global nutrition issue, writes Associate Professor Surinder Baines.

World Food DayDuring 2013 National Nutrition Week (13-19 October) and World Food Day (16 October) the University of Newcastle is showcasing its global leaders in nutrition and dietetics research.

The 2012 Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), an independent assessment of research excellence, awarded nutrition and dietetics research at the University of Newcastle, a rating of 5 - 'well above world standard' - one of only three Australian universities to receive the top ERA rating.

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World Food Day honours the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 1945. Many countries observe World Food Day to raise awareness about food related issues and to highlight areas for future action. This year's theme "Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition" highlights the issues surrounding levels of global food production and availability.

It is well-known that people who live in resource-poor countries have inadequate food intakes with diets that are limited in the variety of foods consumed.  Much of the focus regarding nutritional inadequacy and related health outcomes has been on vulnerable groups and wasting, stunting and nutritional deficiencies have been reported as common problems in infants and young children.

The cause of death from infections is likely to remain high as the spread of disease is common. Unsafe contaminated food and water are responsible for diarrhoeal diseases and these are a leading cause of death particularly among young children. Water and sanitation programs have contributed in reducing the transmission of common infections but poor nutrition, diseases and infections still continue to result in increased morbidity and mortality in all age groups.

On the other hand several developing countries are in economic transition with subsequent changes in lifestyle for many people. Rapid economic growth and increased modernisation has led to a significant change in food consumption patterns.

Communities in both urban and rural areas are replacing their intake of traditional staple foods including wholegrain foods, fruits and vegetables with foods and beverages that are high in energy.

An increase in the number of convenience stores and supermarkets has resulted in processed foods being readily available and many of these products have a high sugar and fat content.

The over consumption of energy dense foods has resulted in an increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity in some low-middle income countries. In recent years Latin America, the Middle East and many countries in Asia have reported excessive weight gain as a significant trend across population groups.  An increase in central obesity has also been reported.

As expected changes in lifestyle characterised by poor food choices and reduced physical activity levels have led to a significant increase in health problems such as diabetes and heart disease and other chronic diseases that are usually associated with well developed countries. Furthermore the co-existence of under-nutrition and nutritional deficiencies now presents additional problems to these countries and food security has become a major consideration particularly in heavily populated countries such as India and China.

Many developed countries are characterised by the consistent availability of food but the issue of food insecurity is an increasing trend. Australia is a food secure country but the prevalence of food insecurity amongst the population is over 5 per cent.  Some reports say that in America, one in seven households experience food insecurity at some time annually and those at greatest risk include single parent households, low income earners and unemployed people.  Food insecurity is linked to many health problems, including high levels of overweight and obesity, and these issues result in increased costs to healthcare systems. 

Numerous initiatives have been progressed to address the issue of food security and food fortification programs have aimed to address common nutritional deficiencies in vulnerable groups and communities. Likewise initiatives in emerging food technologies including those designed to increase food crops with improved nutritional content and use of local resources in agriculture are being undertaken to address food supply demands. However many challenges remain to be further addressed including the up-scale and sustainability of these measures.

Future increases in population size will result in greater demand for food and water across the world.  In addition continued wide spread wars, natural disasters and severe climate changes affecting agriculture productivity and food availability are projected to add to the burden of poverty and hunger in many countries. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be over 9 billion people worldwide and a rise in food insecurity will affect global economic growth and development.World Food Day in 2013 highlights the need for a united focus on integrated multi-sector initiatives to increase productivity and diversity in agriculture and the use of technologies in food production and processing for efficient, well-functioning sustainable traditional and modern food systems to feed the future generations. The availability of a healthy balanced diet that consists of safe and nutritious food remains a common goal for all countries.

Associate Professor Surinder Baines is a nutrition and dietetics expert in the University of Newcastle's School of Health Sciences.

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