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Public Health Nutrition Professor proposes bold strategies to tackle unhealthy food environments in Africa

Speaking at a recent conference on rural food environments in Maputo, Mozambique, Prof Laar noted the urgent need to confront the burgeoning demand for ultra-processed foods, which is driving a concerning nutrition transition across the region.

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Ghanaian Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of Ghana, Amos Laar has proposed strategies to tackle unhealthy food environments in Africa with lessons from Ghana.

Speaking at a recent conference on rural food environments in Maputo, Mozambique, Prof Laar noted the urgent need to confront the burgeoning demand for ultra-processed foods, which is driving a concerning nutrition transition across the region.

He noted, making references to local data they have generated, that Ghana is experiencing a nutrition transition with some evidence of transitioning dietary habits.  Despite Ghana’s rich culinary heritage, traditional diets are being overshadowed by imported, nutrient-poor options, exacerbating the dual burden of malnutrition and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The Professor delved into the theoretical construct of food environments, tracing its evolution and application in public health research, policy, and practice. He emphasized the multifaceted nature of food environments but noted that although multiple definitional perspectives exist on the concept, there is sufficient consensus than definitional disagreement to pose any threat to adopting the concept to improve public health. 

Drawing from food environment projects that he has collaboratively implemented in Ghana, including the Dietary Transitions in Ghanaian Cities Project, the MEALS4NCDs Project, the Healthier Diets for Health Lives (HD4HL) Project, and the Advocating for Ghana’s Health (A4H) Project, Professor Laar outlined evidence-informed advocacy strategies to drive policy change.

These efforts, he said involved engaging diverse stakeholders, conducting rigorous monitoring of food environments, and disseminating policy-influencing evidence through targeted communication channels.

He referred to the passage of the Ghana Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill and the signing of the same into Law (Act 1093) in 2023, as a small, but important win. The Ghana Excise Duty Amendment Act amended the tax rates on health-harming products such as tobacco, alcohol, plastics and plastic products, but also introduced a 20% tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Food environment experts including Prof. Laar believe that this policy if bundled with others such as front-of-pack labelling policy, marketing restrictions policy, and public food procurement policy will significantly and positively impact the Ghanaian food environment – eventually making unhealthy foods unattractive. 

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