Eating habits can go a long way towards ensuring good health. Low consumption of fruits, vegetables or fibre, and excess intakes of salt, sugars, and trans and saturated fats are among the top contributors to death and disability caused by non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
As these are modifiable risk factors, better nutrition and more physical activity translate into healthier individuals and eventually healthier societies. 'Investing in health, promoting good health and keeping people active for longer can help to enhance productivity and competitiveness' in the EU.
In recognition of the impact of nutrition and physical activity and 'its contribution to the healthy growth of children, healthy life years (HLY) and good quality of life of children, adolescents and adults', the European Council invited the Commission to 'continue to provide support and coordination to the present nutrition and physical activity policy framework'. We work closely with the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety and the High Level Group on Nutrition and Physical Activity as well as the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. We support the European Commission’s Strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues as well as the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020.
Our on-going work covers a wide spectrum of activities–with two major areas of focus being school-aged children and older citizens. We review state-of-the-art scientific developments in nutrition and their applicability and relevance for public health decision making. In an often controversial landscape, our scientists provide independent solid scientific advice to European Commission Services and Member States.
Because the benefits of actions focusing on children and adolescents are likely to extend well beyond the children into the society at large and the future, we have focussed on schools as an important setting for health promotion.
To assess the current situation of school food provision frameworks in Europe, we, in close collaboration with the EU High Level Group (HLG) on Nutrition and Physical Activity and Directorate General Health & Consumers, have produced an overview and content analysis of national school food policies in the EU28 plus Norway and Switzerland (in 2014). School food policies and the school setting are crucial in instigating healthier behaviours in children. Here, we are focusing our activities on evaluating current strategies, past interventions, highlighting knowledge gaps and proposing ways forward. The report 'School food and nutrition in Europe: policies, interventions and their impact' is an example of such work and we will continue supporting the Commission and the Member States in their endeavours towards raising healthier children, for example by focusing on school-based interventions that support the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020 objectives in this area.
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Nutrition and active and healthy ageing
To address the vulnerabilities of older European citizens and to ensure that they age as healthily and actively as possible, we are also exploring the role that nutrition can play in active and healthy ageing. This work will support the aim of the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing to improve the quality of life of older people and enable them to stay active longer.
Ageing is a natural biological process that occurs with time. It is associated with functional decline and quite often with the development of non-communicable chronic diseases. Can more be done to prevent these diseases from developing and delay functional decline in older European citizens? Our work aims at promoting stronger inclusion of dietary considerations in relevant policies throughout Europe.
For example, the 'Mapping dietary prevention of cancer in the EU' report notes that while over 90% of the national cancer plans acknowledge the potential positive impact that nutrition and physical activity can have in the prevention of various types of cancer, they often fall short of translating this knowledge into concrete measures to make healthy options easily available, or to influence behaviour change towards healthier dietary patterns and lifestyles. Importantly, successful implementation of dietary-prevention-of-cancer strategies is likely to extend beyond reducing cancer incidence but also the risk of other chronic diseases. Because under-nutrition in older adults is both a cause and consequence of age-related functional decline, we are also looking at the important role that nutrition and using a 'whole diet' approach can play in reducing under-nutrition in older adults. 'The nutritional requirements for the elderly need further attention' and we will continue our work in this area to ensure that public measures capitalise as much as possible on the impact nutrition can have in keeping this age group active, healthy, and socially and economically engaged.
Targeted policy implementation
We also support DG Health and Food Safety in current, concrete food-related issues. For example, we have assessed the presence of trans fats in foods and in the overall diet of the Union population and analysed different strategies and policy options that can be used to reduce trans fat intake at the population level, including their cost-effectiveness. Given the detrimental health effects of this particular type of fat, it is important to ensure that the population intake is kept as low as possible.
In an attempt to build a healthier future, we also engage in foresight work in the areas of safe and healthy food systems. Such foresight analyses can help shape the European Commission’s future strategies in policy implementation.
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Participation in pan-European research programmes
Because of our unique position at the heart of the European Commission, we can quickly translate research outcomes to support policy making. We often engage in European research programmes to provide such a channel while maintaining productive and active networks with nutritionists, food scientists, public health experts and collaborators.
One example is the FP7-funded project PATHWAY-27 which investigates the role of foods enriched with health-enhancing ingredients – so-called 'bioactives' – in public health and food industry competitiveness. All steps from ingredient and food production to the scientific demonstration of health effects of consuming these foods as part of a common diet are being studied. Within PATHWAY-27, we have the task of organising stakeholder workshops to discuss scientific and industry guidance papers for successful health claims applications on bioactive-enriched foods.