World Health Day 2023: Aware consumers key to universal healthcare

World Health Day 2023
World Health Day 2023 is an opportunity to raise awareness about healthy food choices and policies that promote access to nutritious, and sustainable food.

The planet is choking in pollution, and human health is compromised by unsustainable consumption and production at a time when the pandemic refusing to subside. The World Health Day 2023 with the theme, Health for All, underlines the importance of raising awareness on healthcare issues. It becomes all the more relevant as countries are committed to achieving universal healthcare by 2030 which is fundamental to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good Health and Well Being.

Universal health coverage is central to a functioning healthcare system. In India, the government has launched several initiatives to improve access to healthcare and increase the quality of healthcare services. The Ayushman Bharat scheme looks to provide health coverage to over 100 million vulnerable families across the country.

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World Health Day and healthy lifestyle choices

Good health is not just about access to medical care, but also about the promotion of healthy lifestyle choices including healthy food choices. Consuming a healthy and balanced diet is essential for maintaining good health and preventing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases. Access to a healthy, nutritious, and sustainable diet is a fundamental component of universal health coverage. However, many individuals and communities, not just to those living in poverty, lack access to nutritious food, leading to malnutrition and other health problems.

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As per the recent Global Hunger Index 2022, India still suffers from child malnutrition and the country is ranked 107 out of 121 countries, based on various parameters such as child stunting and wasting. Though the rate of malnutrition is high among children from households with lower incomes, malnutrition is prevalent even among middle-class households. Increasing consumption due to the addictive taste, easier availability, and affordability of ultra-processed foods has worsened the matter. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have increased in India from 30.5% in 1990 to 55.4% in 2016.

Almost two years ago, an AIIMS study had revealed that as much as 68% of food and beverage products currently available have excess amounts of at least one ingredient of concern, namely salt, sugar, and saturated fat. Only 32% products were within the scientific thresholds recommended by WHO regional standards.

Multipronged approach is crucial

To achieve health for all, it is crucial to address both the inequalities in access to healthy food and the replacement of nourishing domestic foods by ultra-processed food, sugary beverages, and fast food with poor nutritional quality. This can be achieved through a multifaceted approach, including:

Consumer education and awareness: Educating individuals about the importance of a healthy diet and the harmfulness of diets high in ultra-processed foods. Consumers need to be educated about deceptive food marketing practises to help them make informed decisions about the food they purchase and consume.

Self-initiatives by the food industries: Food industry can play a vital role in promoting healthier eating habits through reformulating food products and offering healthier options. By reformulating food products and reducing added sugars, salt, and unhealthy fats, industries can help consumers make healthier food choices. Additionally, they can increase the availability and affordability of locally sourced fresh, whole foods on market shelves and in restaurants, thereby supporting local farmers and sustainability.

Policy interventions: The government and policymakers can support healthier eating habits by implementing policies such as food labelling regulations, taxes on sugary drinks and junk foods, and restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods to children. Giving weight to economic interests alone while formulating policies to curb unhealthy foods can cause more harm in the long run. Policies promoting healthier eating habits can reduce healthcare costs and improve productivity, leading to long-term economic benefits.

Advocacy and research: Civil society and health experts should advocate for policies and actions that promote healthier eating habits such as strong food labelling laws, and regulations on the marketing of unhealthy foods. They should continue to carry out focused research on the links between diet and health, and share their findings with policymakers and the public to raise awareness about the importance of healthy eating and effective regulations.

Food warning labels and public health

Clear and easy-to-understand food warning labels can easily help individuals make informed decisions about the food they consume and promote healthier food choices. Front of pack labelling (FOPL) can be particularly helpful for rural consumers who may have limited access to information about the nutritional content of the food they consume. In many rural areas, there may be limited access to healthcare services and nutrition education programmes, making it more challenging for people to make informed decisions about their diets.

In India where a significant part of the population lives in rural areas, FOPL labelling can play a critical role in improving public health outcomes. Also, such labelling can be particularly effective in promoting healthy eating habits among vulnerable populations, including children, low-income households, and those with limited access to healthcare services.

By addressing such challenges in access to healthy food, we can promote universal health coverage and ensure that everyone has access to the food they need to maintain good health. World Health Day 2023 provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of healthy food choices and advocate for policies and programmes that promote access to healthy, nutritious, and sustainable food for all.

(Simi TB is policy analyst with CUTS International, a global public policy research and consumer advocacy organisation based in Jaipur.)