Fitness facility - Alex Levac
A woman uses an outdoor fitness facility in Bat Yam. Photo by Alex Levac
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Israel socio-economic cabinet on Monday unanimously approved an interministerial program to promote a healthy lifestyle in Israel, focused on preventing and reducing obesity.

The proposal is expected to come into effect within two weeks.

"The proposal was formulated in an all-encompassing manner in order to advance and better the quality of life for Israeli citizens," Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said after the proposal was approved.

"The cooperation between the Health Ministry, Education Ministry, and the Culture and Sports Ministry shows the determination to carry out such a wide-ranging move and it is a guarantee that the proposed plan will succeed," he said.

The plan's numerous recommendations include amending a 1994 law requiring prospective gym members to obtain a physician's approval before signing up; new members would instead be asked to fill out and sign a declaration of fitness.

The program supports lowering the minimum age for working out with free weights, resistance machines and aerobic exercise machines in gyms from 18 to 14. It calls for the Ministry of Culture and Sport to expand the general public's access to athletic facilities in educational institutions and other public buildings - including courts, playing fields and auditoriums - when they are not in use by students.

The new plan presents several different approaches for improving the average Israeli's diet. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development will promote the development of hybrid species of fruits and vegetables that are bred for unusually high nutrient density, with very high levels of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients. The Education Ministry is to see to the enforcement of existing restrictions on selling foods with low nutritive values in school vending machines and cafeterias. The Finance Ministry will be asked to consider expanding the items for which workplaces can claim tax deductions as "refreshments" to include fresh produce as well as the traditional high-fat cakes and sweet or savory pastries.

Another aspect of the program involves appointing a team for four months to explore ways to increase awareness among employers regarding the importance of investing in employees' fitness by introducing physical activities and installing workplace gyms. A separate team would look into ways to increase public awareness about the importance of consuming nutrient-dense foods.

The interministerial committee will ask the Health Ministry to oversee the introduction of mandatory caloric-content labeling for all ready-to-eat and cooked foods sold at supermarkets, fast-food chains and restaurants - similar to labeling requirements introduced in certain cities and states in the United States. The health minister, meanwhile, will be asked to prohibit the manufacture, import and sale of foods that are high in trans fatty acids, or trans fats. The main target is baked goods made with hydrogenated or partly hydrogenated fats, otherwise known as vegetable shortening or traditionally made margarine.

Another provision in the program would give priority in the state-subsidized "basket" of health goods and services to the introduction of drugs targeting lifestyle diseases. There is also a proposal to restrict television ads for high-calorie foods during peak viewing hours for children.

The estimated cost of the program for the next four years is NIS 265 million, with the lion's share - NIS 153.5 million - coming from the Health Ministry, and the remainder from the ministries of agriculture, education, and culture and sport.

The timing of the proposal's submission to the cabinet stems in part from an October 2010 resolution passed by the health ministers of the OECD member states, in which they undertook to promote the health of their countries' citizens. Closer to home, Jerusalem is playing host to the First World Health Organization European Conference on the New European Policy for Health, "Health 2020," at which countries around the world will set out to achieve public health goals for their populations by 2020.

According to Health Ministry figures, 37 percent of adult Israelis are overweight, with a body mass index of 25 to 30, while an additional 15 percent are categorized as obese, with a BMI exceeding 30.

Among Israeli children, 14 percent are considered overweight, meaning they are between the 85th and 95th percentile for the growth curve. An additional 7 percent are considered obese (95th percentile and above).

According to a Health Ministry survey, only 35 percent of Israelis aged 18 and over engage in regular physical activity. Among Arabs, this figure is just 22 percent. Obesity costs the Israeli economy an estimated NIS 5.8 billion a year.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: הממשלה אישרה פה אחד: יותר ישראלים בחדרי הכושר, פחות קלוריות ושומנים