When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me about Popeye. Popeye was small and weak, but when he ate spinach and became big and strong. Popeye is a great metaphor for dealing with the logic of our food environments, and we need to invest in children for a healthy and sustainable future of Europe.
Last Friday 22 June, the Council of the European Union adopted conclusions for the diet-related public health policy framework, Healthy Nutrition for Children: The Healthy Future of Europe.
These conclusions aim to ensure the best interests of children by protecting their health and well-being. Member States recognise that “the future of Europe lies within the young generation, advocating for the protection of this impressionable demographic is a unique window of opportunity and should be at the core of all Union policies.
But is it really possible to ensure the optimal health of our youth, if we fail to implement these diet and nutrition measures within hospital settings?
An unhealthy diet is arguably an avoidable risk factor for non-communicable diseases and chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers. he conclusions on healthy nutrition for children, therefore, should not only focus on children's educational settings and sport facility centers, but also on hospital and healthcare settings.
We need to invest in children for a healthy and sustainable future of Europe.
There are numerous reasons why we should address food in healthcare - nutritious diets can reduce patient recovery periods and consequently reduce pressure on national healthcare systems, (thereby reducing government budgets).
Taking into account the recommendations proposed to Member States, HCWH Europe urges the inclusion of healthy nutrition guidelines for children in healthcare settings and calls upon hospitals and local authorities to:
- Promote sustainable food policies to create a framework that encourages healthy and sustainable food in all public settings estrict marketing and advertising of foods high in energy, saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugar, and salt
- Activate local food systems:engage with farmers, producers, retailers, and other food business operators to encourage more sustainable procurement practices that promote health and deliver social and environmental benefits.
- Make healthy options easier:promote procurement practices that feature fresh, affordable, seasonal, organic, and locally grown products and foods - including vending machines!
- Encourage redesigned menus if needed, to result in healthier diets that are more culturally and aesthetically pleasing and also taste good at the adequate temperature.
- Become a resource for children, parents, healthcare providers, and hospital staff:share information on nutritious, affordable and convenient food options, appropriate portion sizes, consumption frequency, and provide awareness of the path 'from farm to fork' in all healthcare settings.
It is critical to think beyond the short-sighted belief that healthcare institutions serve only to diagnose and treat disease - the healthcare sector and its staff provide so much more.
HCWH Europe have previously featured several best-practices examples of how hospitals are creating healthy food environments for staff, patients, and visitors – with a particular emphasis on children and young people.
We still need more targeted approaches in both the development and implementation of policies, as well as initiatives at the national, regional, and local levels that encourage healthy habits by making unhealthy options more difficult to obtain.
- Ireland has set of voluntary codes of practice aimed at limiting the promotion, marketing, and sponsorship of foods high in fats, sugar and/or salt (HFSS foods).
- Five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have launched a joint initiative to monitor and evaluate food marketing to children in their countries using fully comparable methods to inform evaluation policy decisions on this topic.
- Hospitals in Spain and Italy are working reduce unhealthy products from vending machines and substitute them for others such as fruits, salads, or low sugar juices, among other products.
- The Regional University Hospital of Malaga has adapted its menus in the pediatric area to children’s taste and preferences, including texture and colour to help appetites and the desire to eat.
Healthcare settings need to be integrated into the design, implementation, and evaluation of guidelines for the health and nutrition of children, as set forth by the European Council. It is critical to think beyond the short-sighted belief that healthcare institutions serve only to diagnose and treat disease - the healthcare sector and its staff provide so much more. Health professionals are actors of change that can strategically promote and adopt more holistic ‘Health-in-All-Policy’ approaches that are critical in leveraging more sustainable healthcare systems.