Text size

The Health Ministry yesterday published ambitious targets for easing the country's obesity problem. By 2020, it will seek to reduce the number of overweight or obese Israelis by 25 percent among children, 33 percent among Jewish adults and 45 percent among Arab adults.

Nutritional surveys conducted over the last decade have found that 44.6 percent of Jewish men, 31.7 of Jewish women, 49.4 percent of Arab men and 33.3 percent of Arab women are overweight or obese. Among minors, the rate is 20.1 percent among boys and 16.7 among girls.

The ministry, which recently allocated NIS 26 million to encourage Israelis to lead healthy lifestyles, outlined the steps it will take to achieve this goal.

These include improving nutritional labeling on packages, reducing the amount of salt in processed food and encouraging a healthy diet in schools and institutions. This week, the state comptroller's report found that schools don't supervise the kind of food sold on their campuses, nor does the Israel Defense Forces supervise the kind of food sold in army canteens.

Studies have found that Israelis consume 9 to 12 grams of salt per day, while the recommended maximum intake is 5 to 6 grams a day. Only 15 to 25 percent of consumption comes from saltshakers; the bulk comes from processed foods.

Since excess sodium intake causes a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease, the ministry hopes that reducing the use of salt in processed foods could save the economy anywhere from NIS 240 million to NIS 1.25 billion a year.

The first step is to encourage food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce their use of salt. The European Union and the World Health Organization launched similar initiatives, which the ministry hopes will provide an incentive to Israeli manufacturers.

The goal is to get manufacturers to reduce their use of salt by 6.5 percent a year, thereby reducing Israelis' salt intake 35 percent by 2020 to six grams a day.

"Salt reduction is a cautious process that must be implemented gradually, so as to get accustomed to the taste," said Avigdor Ginsburg of the ministry's nutrition department.

The ministry is also urging rabbis to reduce the amount of salt used in kashering meat.

Other project goals include removing all trans fats from Israeli foods by 2013, reducing the amount of sugar in processed foods 15 percent by 2020, and enriching various foods-mainly bread-with iron and B vitamins. In addition, the ministry is working on a regulation requiring that milk be enriched with Vitamin D. Currently, such enrichment is voluntary, and only some types of milk contain the vitamin.

The ministry is also considering whether to require ionization of salt. This, too, is currently voluntary.

In a study prepared in conjunction with the Central Bureau of Statistics, the ministry estimates that 27,000 Israelis die each year from unhealthy lifestyles, whether it be from smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, poor nutrition or alcohol consumption.

Meanwhile, the IDF yesterday presented initial results examining the way new recruits' nutrition is affected by entering a combat unit. Many of the findings were inconclusive. For example, 30 percent of soldiers gained weight during their first month of basic training, while 39 percent lost weight-though over the course of their service, most soldiers gain an average of 3 to 3.5 kilograms.

One change in habits was clear: 94.5 percent of soldiers said they eat breakfast on base, compared with only 76 percent of 12th-graders.