Experts emphasise the importance of eating a healthy and balanced diet. But what does it mean exactly? Ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021, scheduled to take place in September 2021, to focus on strengthening food systems, promoting healthy diets and improving nutrition, especially for children and young people, let’s revisit how United Nations describes a “healthy diet” in their March 2021 paper ‘Healthy diet: A definition for the United Nations Food Systems Summit’.
According to the paper, healthy diet is health-promoting and disease-preventing. “It provides adequacy without excess, of nutrients and health promoting substances from nutritious foods and avoids the consumption of health-harming substances.”
While conceptually simple, there is “no straightforward, universally accepted approach to classifying individual foods as more or less nutritious”. Similarly, some context specificity is required in the categorisation of individual foods as nutritious. The same food, for example, whole fat milk, may provide much-needed energy and other nutrients to one population group (e.g., underweight 3-year-old children), but be less “healthy” for another due to high energy (calories) and fat content (e.g., obese adults), it noted.
The paper elaborates that an individual might consume several foods or combinations of them without excess of any particular nutrients.
So, what comprises nutritious food?
A food item that provides all types of beneficial nutrients such as protein, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids and fibre. Such food also minimises intake of harmful elements such as sodium, saturated fats, and sugars, the paper noted.
“Nutrient profiling” or the rating of foods based on their nutrient density (i.e., nutrient content per 100 g or per 100 kcal of energy or per serving) has evolved substantially in recent years as an approach to classifying individual foods as more or less nutritious, the paper mentioned.
Authors Lynnette M Neufeld, Sheryl Hendriks, and Marta Hugas highlighted that there were “still a number of gaps in improving the ability to charecterise foods as more or less nutritious”.
While nutrient requirements differed according to sex, age and life stage, no single nutrient requirement value can be defined even within age or sex groups.
The authors also pointed out the lack of database when it comes to less common food items such as ‘edible insects’.
Stressing on food safety, the paper stated that food could be rendered harmful due to biological hazards, pathogens or chemical contaminants like pesticides or veterinary medicines.
As per the paper, food safety priorities for countries include addressing risks from farm to table, changing from reactive to proactive approaches to food safety, and adopting a risk analysis approach to ensure prioritised decision making. Building food safety capacity will assist governments in economic development by improving the health of their own citizens and opening countries to more food export markets and tourism.