The UK needs a national nutrition strategy to tackle the long-term causes of some of its most costly chronic diseases, argues a scientist in a leading British journal Science and Public Affairs.
The annual estimated cost to the country's National Health Service (NHS) of diet-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes and osteoporosis, is in excess of £15 billion, writes Professor Sue Fairweather-Tait, head of the nutrition division at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, but the country invests a tiny percentage in preventative strategies.
Costs are escalating because of the ageing population and the current obesity epidemic, all of which have ultimately to be met by taxpayers. But while Wales and Scotland are developing nutrition strategies to deal with their regional health issues, there is no equivalent activity for England, where most of the UK population lives, and Northern Ireland.
The multidisciplinary nature of nutrition (spanning molecular to social sciences) makes it relevant to several agencies and Government departments, including the Food Standards Agency, Department of Health, DEFRA, MRC and BBSRC, but there is no primary ownership, and no one appointed to harness all the national resources to develop a nutrition strategy to improve public health in the UK, argues Fairweather-Tait.
"The government is taking the long view to tackle environmental issues. We are not told to put on a gas mask because the air is polluted - action is taken to clean it up. The root causes of obesity and diet-related diseases need to be tackled with a similarly long term approach," writes the scientist.
And on the controversial subject of the food industry's role, government is held ultimately responsible for public health. "The food industry and pharmaceutical companies cannot be expected to take the lead, but meanwhile the taxpayer is losing out. We cannot afford the predicted health care costs - immediate action is needed (for example to subsidise healthy foods, which are often beyond the budget of low-income families) to ensure long term economic and human health in the UK."
However, the author suggests, like other consumer campaign groups, such as the International Task Force on Obesity, that the government might have to consider introducing legislation or incentives to encourage the food industry to be more proactive in their product development, marketing and pricing strategies, to help consumers select healthier diets.
The British could also miss out on opportunities arising from the new developments in nutritional science, including new tools for preventive health, because of the lack of a unifying champion for nutrition, notes Professor Fairweather-Tait.
She points to emerging nutrigenomics research, likely to lead to individual dietary advice and bespoke food products to optimise the quality and longevity of people's lives, but hampered by significant barriers to progress.
"The science itself is complex and substantial resources are needed to move our understanding of nutrition a quantum leap forward," writes Fairweather-Tait.
As yet, no research council or government department has made moves to take primary ownership of nutrition research in the UK. A national nutrition strategy in conjunction with regional nutrition initiatives would harness and direct existing efforts, generate a co-ordinated research programme and ensure national funding is optimally deployed, believes the scientist.
The 'fat tax', proposed by some medical professionals, however is not an option, and merely represents a 'search for short-term solutions', according to the article. Part of the solution should be collaboration, not competition, between key UK research groups, perhaps through targeted funding initiatives, to build a national research programme, suggests the author.
And a national nutrition strategy must be more than a 'talking shop' (e.g. the FSA Diet and Nutrition Forum) for all interested parties and stakeholders. It must have clear objectives and accountability, strong leadership, and an appropriate level of resource, as highlighted by the recent FAO/WHO report on diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases (2003).
"The knowledge gained from appropriately directed and coordinated nutrition research and its application will help individuals achieve maximum potential to live a long and healthy life. But it must be accompanied by widespread changes in attitudes and practice in academic, political, industrial and consumer sectors of the UK. Government policy to initiate and facilitate a national strategy for nutrition is long overdue," concludes Professor Fairweather-Tait.
Professor Susan Fairweather-Tait's article is published in the latest edition of Science and Public Affairs, published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.