A measuring tape for obesity

15 November 2012

Deakin initiative will monitor governments and food industry, says Dr Gary Sacks.

Deakin University is playing a key role in developing a “measuring tape” for the battle against obesity.

It’s a new international network, known as INFORMAS which stands for the International Network for Food and Obesity/Non-communicable Diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support.

INFORMAS is collecting data so that governments and the food industry can be held accountable for their efforts to address the impact that unhealthy food environments are having on the well-being of millions of people around the world.

It aims to provide the first sets of data next year.

“The prevention of obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers, is a global health priority,” says Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Gary Sacks.

“The key driver of obesity over the last three decades has been changes to food environments.

“That is, there has been a dramatic increase in the supply of cheap, tasty, high-calorie foods that are very heavily marketed.

“This has meant that the population intake of unhealthy food has increased substantially.”

The United Nations, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and several public health advocacy groups have called for governments and the food industry to take urgent steps to improve food environments and prevent obesity and NCDs.

“However, up until now there hasn’t been a global monitoring system in place to measure what governments and the food industry are doing in relation to food environments,” Dr Sacks said.

“What’s more, there are no good standards in place to benchmark their policies and actions against good practice.

“In most cases, governments are leaving the junk food industry to regulate their own efforts to improve food environments, and this is failing to result in the improvements needed to reduce NCDs.

“There is currently no good way of comparing the foods available for sale in different countries and across time.

“There is also no good data on the relative prices of healthy and unhealthy foods in different countries.

“In addition, no-one is keeping track of the activities of the food industry that have important influences on the food supply, such as their lobbying of governments and the political donations they make.

“This is where INFORMAS will step in, it will be a measuring tape to see how the world is going in the battle against obesity.”

Dr Sacks has just returned from an INFORMAS workshop co-organised by Deakin University and featuring a 23-strong team of international academics and public health experts at the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio, Italy.

“The meeting was held under the auspices of the International Obesity Taskforce which is based in London,” he said.

“This new network brings together the world’s experts on monitoring food composition, food marketing, food labelling and food pricing.

“In Bellagio we began formulating a strategic plan for INFORMAS.”

As well as Dr Sacks, Deakin was represented by Professor Boyd Swinburn, a globally recognised expert in obesity health issues.

Professor Swinburn oversees several community-based obesity prevention projects, mainly in the Barwon-South West region of Victoria as well as contributing to a number of other state, national and international projects.

Other participants in Italy included representatives from international UN organisations, such as WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), leading global obesity and food policy experts, including representatives from the University of Oxford, University of Auckland, University of Sydney, University of Toronto, and the George Institute, and representatives from low and middle-income countries, including Brazil, India, China, Mexico, South Africa and Fiji.

The 23-strong team of international academics and public health experts at the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio, Italy. The 23-strong team of international academics and public health experts at the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio, Italy.

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