The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the consumption of unhealthy food is a risk factor for the development of diseases such as diabetes, overweight, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and other pathologies. Currently, one third of the world’s population is affected by at least one form of malnutrition and more than 40% of the world’s population is obese or overweight. On current trends, it is estimated that by 2025, one in two people will be malnourished and 40 million children will be obese or overweight in the next decade. In view of these data, the Director General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, states that “malnutrition, in all its forms, is one of the leading causes of death and disease in the world”.
To this end, in this article we talk to two specialists in Nutrition and Dietetics, Monica Herrero Martinez and Maria Carmen Japaz Cancino, about the main problems about poor nutrition, foods harmful to health and the challenges that lie ahead from the specialty.
“Currently, we are facing an epidemic of malnutrition by excess. Overweight and obesity imply an excess of body fat that in itself already implies a low-grade systemic inflammation and is the prelude to the appearance of other pathologies such as high cholesterol and triglycerides, insulin resistance, arterial hypertension, elevated uric acid, etc. This means that within 10 to 20 years there will be an enormous increase in chronic diseases and the impact this has on people’s quality of life. If we think about today’s children, they will live fewer years than their grandparents because they will begin to suffer from these alterations much earlier,” says Maria Carmen Japaz.
Mónica Herrero adds that it is important to give a definition of what is meant by malnutrition. “It is not only the term of not eating enough food or nutrients, but it also includes people who are obese, and especially childhood obesity, which is also due to poor nutrition. The term malnutrition refers to poor nutrition due to various causes: eating too little, eating too much, not combining foods correctly, eating foods with little or no nutritional value”.
The environment and lifestyle, determining factors in good nutrition
The two specialists agree on the fact that both the environment and social factors have too much influence on the choice of the food we eat.
“It is clear that what has the greatest influence is the difference in wealth between countries. Statistically, it is known that the poorest part of the population has the highest percentage of malnutrition. It is clear that countries with a higher poverty rate will have a higher percentage of population with malnutrition. Another thing to note is that the availability of food is not the same for all countries. There is inequality, undeveloped or developing countries do not have raw materials or tools. In society, nutritional education is of vital importance for a more nutritious, healthy and sustainable diet”, says Herrero.
For his part, Japaz comments that, “when people’s purchasing power is reduced, obesity increases, which means that the cost of living directly affects the choice of food consumed. The economic aspect is a determining factor. If we observe, the most affordable products have higher amounts of sugars, salt, fat, refined flours, additives, etc. Therefore, a low nutritional quality. It is true that there is a genetic predisposition, but it is also true that the environment, diet and lifestyle can make those genes activate and manifest themselves or, on the contrary, protect us.”
Foods with up to 20 different types of pesticides.
A study conducted by the American NGO Environmental Working Group indicates that, currently, there are foods that may contain up to 20 different types of pesticides.
“These are perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) present in a large number of industries and consumer products. As far as food is concerned, they are present in various food packaging materials, Teflon, non-stick utensil materials, cultivated soils that have been contaminated or water contaminated by industry that has used these substances. They are also found in products that we commonly use as stain removers, cleaning products, waxes and paints. And in derivatives of these substances, in the environment, as well as in birds, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, mammals, etc. So their presence is common in foodstuffs and in the final consumer,” says Japaz.
In this same sense, Herrero adds: “Above all, we have to talk about processed foods, fourth range products, snacks, sugary drinks, alcohol and pastries. The basis of a good diet would be to eat vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole-grain pasta and rice, dairy products, meat, fish and eggs. And all processed food will contain addictives or substances that can be harmful to health, as well as saturated fats, refined sugars and salt. This type of food is going to be much more harmful than food that comes from the field or livestock. Therefore, to obtain foods without any compound used for their preservation we would have to grow them ourselves or know from whom we buy them. Therefore, the recommendation is to buy local and seasonal products”.
The importance of frequency of consumption
Faced with the big question that we can ask ourselves to know which foods are harmful to health and why, Herrero explains that, “there are foods that, because of their nutritional composition, it is advisable to eat only sporadically. More than a question of good and bad foods, this should be associated with the frequency of consumption of these foods. There is a lot of confusion about good and bad, superfoods, foods with magical effects, etc. The truth is that the important thing is not whether or not a certain food is consumed, but how is my diet day after day, as a whole. This is much more difficult for the population to understand and I believe that nutrition information suffers from a deep intrusiveness, which further complicates the picture. There is a rule that is not always right, but I can say that, in general, it is. The less industrialized a food is, the better. The less the industry has done, and the more we treat it in the kitchen at home, the better.
Faced with this situation, the basic principles for healthy eating, according to Herrero, should be based on eating seasonal products, from the area, containing a single ingredient, i.e., mainly in bulk. “Fruits, vegetables and greens should be eaten every day, and throughout the week, dairy products, whole grains, legumes, nuts, meat, fish and eggs should also be eaten”.
The 6 objectives established by the WHO
WHO states that both COVID-19 and climate change have been factors that have aggravated all forms of malnutrition and threatened sustainability and resilience in the world’s food systems. In 2021, during the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo, the organization announced six agreements to be able to meet the targets set for 2025, which have also been compromised because of the pandemic. These are:
- Expand initiatives to prevent and care for overweight and obesity.
- Intensify activities aimed at creating food environments that promote safe and healthy diets.
- Support countries in the fight against acute malnutrition.
- Accelerate work to reduce anemia.
- Implement, on a larger scale, measures that promote and support quality breastfeeding.
- Strengthen nutrition data systems, data use and capacity.
With these objectives in mind, Japaz says he agrees with them. “I believe that cross-sectoral agreements are essential to achieve them. The double face of malnutrition in the world, by deficit or excess, requires different interventions and they are not exclusive within the same country due to social inequalities. It has been proven that in less developed or developing countries, as soon as people migrate from rural areas to urban areas, what is known as ‘food transition’ takes place. They stop eating products from the garden and pr
oximity, while increasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods, with excess fat, sugars, sodium and poor in quality nutrients and fiber”.
Herrero also believes that it is vitally important to prevent certain diseases associated with poor nutrition, from education, health centers, as well as in schools and institutes: “We claim the figure of Dietitian-Nutritionist in all health centers, because it is the reference professional in food. Our collective is very involved in issues of sustainability and food aid to the most needy.”
What measures can we adopt for healthy nutrition?
To promote healthy nutrition and maintain it, Herrero is committed to educating parents, who are essential to educate future generations. And he adds other measures such as prevention from the health centers themselves. “If there is good prevention, we will avoid the disease, the cost of drugs and hospitalization, and with all this, a better quality of life for the patient.”
Japaz affirms that healthy nutrition is something that concerns us all. Understanding that good nutrition is long-term health insurance for our sons and daughters and for each other. “Tradition, history, religion, nationality, family influence, psychological factors, income, work schedules, availability of time for food preparation at home, all have an influence. However, there are aspects that we can influence immediately and have great benefits: such as physical activity and thus avoiding a sedentary lifestyle. Taxes on sugary drinks or foods with an inadequate nutritional profile, the reduction of taxes on healthy foods, the regulation of advertising of foods that are not part of a healthy diet are aspects that the administration can regulate and have a great impact on our health. In short, be well informed, seek professional advice, engage in frequent physical activity, avoid tobacco and alcohol, eat 5-6 meals a day, diversify the diet, prioritize more natural or less industrially treated foods”.