Global diet strategy adopted as movement to fight obesity mount

Sunday, May 23, 2004

GENEVA -- The world's health leaders formally adopted a global strategy to combat bad diet and exercise habits Saturday, part of a wave of determination to fight diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.

The voluntary plan offers a blueprint for countries trying to develop policies that make it easier for people to eat healthier food and exercise more. Diseases linked to poor diet cause more than half of all deaths worldwide and are becoming an increasing problem in poor countries.

The governing body of the World Health Organization formally adopted the plan Saturday after tentatively agreeing upon it Friday.

"We will go home with this global strategy in hand, share it with our colleagues in the various ministries and get on with the job of improving the diets of our people," the delegation of the Philippines said.

The agreement sets out recommendations such as the reduction of sugar, fat and salt in processed food; the control of food marketing to children and of health claims on packaging; and more comprehensive nutrition labeling and health education.

It also provides ideas on ways to make healthy choices easier at school, work and home, such as safer walkways and more cycling tracks and the subsidization of fruits and vegetables in school lunch rooms.

Regardless of whether countries end up using the unprecedented plan, experts say the pace of obesity's spread across the planet, the predictions of what it will cost to deal with the consequences, and the food industry's lingering fears of a successful lawsuit by fat people are all forces certain to motivate changes.

The problem of excess weight and obesity, which now afflicts more people than malnutrition does, has been thrust into the spotlight like never before, said Dr. Derek Yach, who spearheaded the development of the plan at the World Health Organization.

"This is one that won't get shelved because you are dealing with massive corporate interests," he said.

Companies are dogged by worries that one day they will face massive damages if a lawsuit blaming them for making people fat succeeds. Analysts have published reports advising investors that some food company stocks may be a risky addition to a portfolio because of the obesity-promoting nature of some of their products.

Still, the WHO diet and exercise plan is not a legally binding treaty, and experts say and its test will be whether and how nations use it.

"This is going to need champions in each country," said Dr. Jim Kiely, a member of the Irish delegation. "It's simply not going to happen because the health minister has been here and goes back and says this is a very good document."

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