The Health Ministry is launching a policy to promote healthy eating. It has set up a committee that includes medical, scientific and other professionals drawn from the finance and education ministries, nongovernmental organizations and the Israel Manufacturers Association to draft a program to define the required legislation, education and supervision.
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Healthy nutrition standards will be adopted in state bodies like day care centers, hospitals and prisons, and will be promoted in schools and clinics. Laws and taxes will be adjusted to encourage the making and marketing of healthy foodstuffs and the reduction of harmful products.
This development follows the ministry’s recent program to prevent diabetes and campaign for banning the sale of junk food and sugary snacks and drinks in schools.
The committee discussed ideas such as opening dining rooms and sports facilities in schools, raising taxes on sweetened drinks while reducing the price of healthy food, restricting the marketing of food harmful to children and expanding medical programs to fight overweight.
“We’re completely changing the mind-set,” said Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov. “Our aim is to create an environment that promotes healthy nutrition. We are responsible for that as a state.”
Adi Even Hen, of the Israel Manufacturers’ Association, asked the committee at a certain point “not to use the term ‘harmful food’ to describe undesirable foods but to use ‘inferior’ instead.’” “We believe that what is harmful is the food’s consumption, not the food itself.”
“The definition is harmful food and will stay that way,” Bar Siman Tov said. He said the ministry isn’t planning to interfere with the free market but to enable the public to choose healthy food freely.
One of the main difficulties the committee faces stems from the fact that the damage caused by unhealthy food is not immediately felt but accumulated over the years. Another is that unhealthy foodstuffs simply taste good. Also, it is available, low priced and part of the general culture of instant gratification.
According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in the 1980s less than 10 percent of the population in most member states was overweight or obese. Today over half of people in half the OECD states are considered overweight or obese. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates the annual cost of obesity at about $2 trillion, similar to that of smoking, gun violence, war and terrorism – or 2.8 percent of global gross domestic product.
In Israel, 25 percent of adults and 14 percent of children are overweight or obese. One-fifth (21 percent) of first-graders and 31 percent of seventh-graders are obese.
Overweight is estimated to cost Israel 6 billion shekels ($1.5 billion) a year, and it accounts for about 10 percent of state health spending. This includes, in addition to medical care, also absences from work and loss of the ability to work.