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Pakistan needs healthy diet policy: experts

Pakistan needs healthy diet policy: experts

Flat-lay photography of vegetable salad on the plate.— Pexels/File
Flat-lay photography of vegetable salad on the plate.— Pexels/File

ISLAMABAD: Calling for the preparation and implementation of a ‘national diet policy’ from the perspective of health instead of food security, public health experts emphasised that without providing a healthy diet and clean drinking water to the people, the dream of achieving a healthy society is unachievable.

They claimed that over 70 percent of health issues are related to nutrition and safe drinking water. Unfortunately, a vast majority of people, especially women and children, are not getting the required nutrition or clean drinking water, resulting in serious health issues in Pakistan.

“Research has shown that around 72 health issues faced by people are diet-related, including clean drinking water. In Pakistan, the high burden of communicable as well as non-communicable diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, is mostly linked to our poor dietary habits,” Prof. Shahzad Ali Khan, Vice Chancellor of Health Services Academy (HSA), told a seminar on healthy diet policy in Islamabad.

Addressing the participants of the seminar, titled “From Concept to Action: Nourishing Food Pathways through Healthy Diet Policy,” which was organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Prof. Khan advocated for the preparation of Pakistan’s National Healthy Diet Policy (PNHDP) but called for its preparation from a health perspective instead of food security.

“Unfortunately, whenever we discuss the issues related to nutrition and diet, we look into them from the food security perspective and always focus on under-nutrition segments of the society instead of discussing malnutrition, which is a more serious issue in Pakistan,” he said, adding that owing to malnutrition, a vast majority of Pakistanis lacked the required immunity and strength to fight diseases.

Citing the example of Covid-19, Prof. Khan claimed that during the pandemic, only those people became seriously sick whose nutrition status was not up to the mark, as they were either undernourished or had comorbidities due to malnutrition. On the other hand, people who were physically fit, taking nutritious diets, and being physically active survived the pandemic despite being infected multiple times, he added.

He said in China, most of the diseases are treated with the help of traditional Chinese medicines, which are mostly nutrition supplements. He added that even in Western countries, the focus is on a healthy diet for the prevention and treatment of diseases instead of prescribing medicines.

“So, in countries like Pakistan where the incidence of communicable and non-communicable diseases is very high, we need to adopt the concept of DPASS. D is for Diet, PA is for Physical Activity, and SS are for Sleep and Stress Management,” he advised and urged policymakers to prepare the national healthy diet policy from the angle of health instead of food security.

Faiz Easool from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) deplored that over 82 percent of the Pakistani population, or around 200 million people have no access to a healthy and nutritious diet, but policymakers are least concerned about this aspect of health and well-being.

He said although youth and women are in the majority in Pakistan, they are never made part of policy discussions, although they are the most affected segments of society. He called for giving attention to food, dietary patterns, and nutrition in national and provincial health and social policies.

Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba, Director of Nutrition at the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHS,R&C), said statistics show that 67 percent of the population is unable to afford a nutritious diet, whereas around five percent are unable to afford the minimum required energy intake.

She said that at the Ministry of Health, they are trying to formulate policies at both national and provincial levels to improve the nutrition status, especially for women and children, and urged the private sector, civil society, and other segments of the society to cooperate in this regard.

SDPI’s Khansa Naeem presented data and statistics regarding malnutrition and its impacts on society, saying malnutrition is also prevalent among children, with 8 out of 10 suffering from malnutrition, stunting, wasting, and micronutrient deficiencies due to a lack of the right quality of food consumption.

Approximately 10 million children are stunted, while several areas in the country are at emergency levels of wasting. As a result, one in 15 children dies in Pakistan before the age of five, double the rate of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Almost half the children below five have a lower than healthy height for their age, she said, adding that when it comes to women, millions of them are anaemic. “The situation is worse for pregnant women (reproductive age 15 to 49 years) who, due to lack of maternal nutrition, suffer from high rates of anaemia (42.6 percent) and iron deficiency (46.9 percent),” she said.

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