Healthy food in Germany?

Commitment of Policy and Food Industry Required.

High-caloric food lurks everywhere. How can we eat healthy despite of that? This question was recently debated at the “IFB dialogue”, a panel discussion with representatives from medicine, nutrition and politics (May 16, 2013) organized by the Integrated Research and Treatment Centre (IFB) AdiposityDiseases in Leipzig. In this country, plentiful food still remains one of the main causes of obesity. What about the eating habits in Germany? Which changes must occur to motivate people to eat healthier in order to prevent obesity? On the occasion of the European Obesity Day (May 18, 2013) and the discussion about a prevention legal bill to fight civilization diseases it is necessary to answer these questions.

Overeating and obesity have long been a problem in Germany, Mario Hellbardt emphasizes. He is health scientists and dietician at the IFB. "More than half of Germany's population is too plump; almost a quarter is even obese. In particular, obesity-related comorbidities such as diabetes burden both patients and society." However, “the causes of obesity are not only a matter of the individual and his eating habits, his genes or his metabolism. They also depend on environmental conditions", Mr. Hellbardt explains. Hence, obesogenic environments which are characterized by where and how much food is available, whether physical activity is possible in the daily routine, or whether the work place allows proper meals.

Better Food Labeling Required

Even though supermarket shelves are full with healthy food, Uta Viertel, nutrition expert at the Consumer Protection Centre Saxony, points out possible problems for consumers to really eat healthy: "Fantasy names, images and embellishing product presentations, unclear information on the products simulate healthy ingredients.” Therefore, eligible health political interventions would be to set guidelines for comprehensive food information on products, and guidelines for food in schools and kindergartens. This way a healthy diet would be trained early on. Healthy nutrition should also become subject in school.

Waning Eating Culture

"Especially children need good examples in family rather than finger-wagging nutrition education. Even cooking shows on television are more likely to be passively consumed as entertainment and do not lead to more activity in German kitchens, " Dr. Thomas Ellrott, director of the Institute for Nutrition Psychology in Göttingen explains. He regards mal-nutrition and overeating related to the increase of dysfunctional family structures and waning eating culture in Germany: “’Fast, cheap, and much’ is the wrong philosophy when it comes to food. A campaign for self-cooking and primarily more appreciation of eating together could help to work against the fast food and snack-trend.”

“As long as potato chips are cheaper than fruit we have a problem in Germany," Prof. Wieland Kiess adds. He is director of the Clinic for Children and Adolescents at the University Hospital, and researcher at the IFB AdiposityDiseases. For many years he has been treating obese children and adolescents in a special outpatient clinic. "The problem mainly starts in the family; it is not the fault of the child. Awareness and nutrition knowledge of parents are essential to ensure a healthy diet for children in this country.” Recent studies show that obese children have an increased risk to develop cardiovascular diseases. The health risk still remains even if they start to lose weight. The health consequences of child obesity are serious since about 80 percent of overweight children remain overweight in later years.

State Regulated Guidelines for a Healthy Diet?

Karin Stempel, health spokeswoman of the CDU in Saxony rejects the demand of doctors and consumer advocates to ban food advertising that is targeted at children. For her, it doesn't make any sense: "Laws or bans can not significantly influence food intake," Mrs. Strempel is convinced. However, intensive education on healthy eating at school and other healthy food promotion are important and should be increased, so Mrs. Strempel. Practical programs are for example offered by the Saxony State Association for Health Promotion.

The conclusion of the panel discussion at the IFB dialogue was that a healthy diet is feasible only with individual responsibility and commitment. However, also health policy and food industry need to show much more commitment than so far. There is a great demand for federal state regulations and interventions that go beyond admonishment and appeals should reach the entire population. These interventions are to create living conditions for all people so that even the poorest with low education have access to a healthier life.