As president of the German Society for Nutritional Medicine (DGEM), Professor Anja Bosy-Westphal supports the #ErnährungswendeAnpacken! (tackle the nutritional transition) alliance. In an interview with unizeit, she explained what it’s all about and what she is researching herself.
unizeit: If you read the Ernährungsreport 2021* (nutrition report 2021), you might think that no change is needed at all. According to the report, 91 percent of Germans eat healthy food, and 76 percent eat fruit and vegetables daily or several times a day. So is everything fine?
Anja Bosy-Westphal: No, unfortunately not. When I look at what kind of food is available and sold in supermarkets, and when I look at the nutritional state of the population, I see major problems. The relevance of such a qualitative survey is limited. Of course we need to take a closer look. Our food and nutrition have changed a lot over the years. And we have a glaring nutritional problem, especially with regard to obesity and associated diseases. We are an obese society in Germany, and this is largely due to our diet. In this regard, I can't give the all-clear. Of course, a big goal for all of us is to eat a healthy diet. But this is not so easy for consumers. To some extent, we are at the mercy of what’s offered. In my research I deal with highly processed foods such as ready-made meals, puddings or baked goods and sweets, whose consumption is related to obesity and mortality. We observe that our diet is increasingly drifting in this direction and that it is becoming more and more similar worldwide.
Together with your professional association, the German Society for Nutritional Medicine, you have joined the #ErnährungswendeAnpacken! (tackle the nutritional transition) alliance. What are the specific demands?
The 15 associations and professional associations involved from the fields of health, social affairs, nutrition and the environment are calling for political measures which enable a fundamental change in our nutrition along the lines of the "planetary health diet", i.e. a diet that serves the health of humans and at the same time protects the environment.
The list of measures covers ten points. One of them relates to canteen meals, for example. This point is about developing and implementing standards. Kindergartens, schools, businesses, hospitals and nursing facilities must be enabled to ensure a healthy and sustainable diet. This is one of the most important goals. Another point relates to the regulation of food advertising that is aimed at children.
We need more regulation. We cannot put all the responsibility in the hands of the individual consumer. The same is true for obesity. We cannot only blame those who are overweight, as is always the case in Germany. In fact, we all eat too much, we just can’t see this when looking at everyone. Nevertheless, most people have a nutritional problem. The goal must be that we all automatically make a healthier choice, because it is cheaper, more attractive or more readily available, for example.
There is traditionally a lot of resistance to the topic of regulation in Germany. I just have to think about the debate on "veggie day" in public canteens.
Perhaps the time is right for this now. There are so many people who are interested in vegetarian or vegan alternatives and are trying them out. We also observe this among the students. In a long-term study, the freshman study, we collect data on nutrition and health in the first semester (see box). We differentiate between three groups, depending on whether the students eat a vegetarian, vegan or mixed diet. Especially in the first year of study, the diet of students often changes, as they are usually unable to eat at their parents’ home any longer and can eat whatever they want. Studies have shown that they have a high risk of gaining weight during this period.
Incidentally, a vegetarian or vegan diet is not necessarily healthier. When I was a student, the "German vegetarian study" showed that people who eat a vegetarian diet live longer and are slimmer. This is, however, not necessarily the case any more today. In India, for example, where there are lots of vegetarians, there is a significant increase in diabetes. This is also due to the growing trend towards highly processed foods. Those who do not eat meat or any animal products in general eat more highly processed substitute products today. In Germany, almost half of the calories are now consumed in the form of highly processed foods. Ready-made products, cookies and sweets may be vegetarian or vegan, but they are still not healthy, for example because they have high energy densities, can be consumed quickly without properly satisfying hunger, or cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly.
The food industry plays a significant role in the problems. How do you plan to get them on board?
This is a very important point. In nutritional science, we traditionally conduct research together with industry. The food industry is part of the problem, but it must also be part of the solution. I have always sought dialogue with the industry. It is important to work together to find solutions to achieve a nutritional transition.
This interview was conducted by Kerstin Nees
* Annual representative forsa survey of 1,000 consumers on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. More information here: bit.ly/ernaehrungsreport2021
Anja Bosy-Westphal is a professor of human nutrition at Kiel University (CAU). The nutritional scientist and physician has been president of the German Society for Nutritional Medicine (DGEM) since 2020.
Also see an interview with Anja Bosy-Westphal on climate-friendly nutrition:
Looking for first semester students for freshman study!
In the summer semester, first semester students from Kiel will once again be included in the freshman study. All healthy individuals from 18 to 25 who have been following either a vegetarian, vegan or mixed diet for more than three months can take part. Participants receive an analysis of their vitamin B12 and iron levels as well as their body composition. (ne)