• The rate of obesity in Chile doubled between 1980 and 2014.
  • But three key policies are changing people’s attitudes to what they eat.
  • The laws include bold labels on packaging, sales restrictions and a ban on advertising unhealthy foods to children.
  • Parents say many kids now refuse food marked as unhealthy.

In 2016, Chile faced a stark health crisis. The rate of obesity had doubled since 1980 and was set to push up national healthcare costs by $750 million every year for the next two decades.

So the government took radical action, banning the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, prohibiting their sale in and around schools, and stamping a large black ‘stop’ sign on the packaging of food with high levels of sugar, salt, fat or calories.

The measures seem to be paying off, according to researchers who have monitored the response of parents and their children. They report kids avoiding foods with stop signs and mothers changing their shopping habits to put healthy food on the table.

Globally, obesity is responsible for 4.7 million premature deaths each year – that’s almost four times the number of people who die in road accidents.

In Chile, obesity and related conditions are still the biggest cause of death in a population where one in four children and a third of adults are obese. The share of children aged two to four who were overweight in 2016 was almost 45%.

Number of deaths by risk factor, World, 2017
Global number of deaths by risk factor in 2017
Image: Our World In Data

Mother knows best

Researchers at Diego Portales University, Chile, and the University of North Carolina say Chilean mothers hold the key to what children eat, as they are the ones who make most food purchase decisions and act as gatekeepers for food availability in the household.

In interviews, mothers said the new rules had opened their eyes to the harmful effects of some foods. One mother of a five-year-old told them: “Because of this new law, my daughter has been taught a lot about these black logos. She says: ‘No mum, you can’t buy me that’.”

Teachers have played a crucial role in helping to change behaviour, too, checking children’s lunch choices and helping kids learn about the meaning of food labelling. As a result, mothers have changed their food buying habits.

The five-year-old’s mother explained: “Because I have adapted as well, when we go grocery shopping, I see a product and I’m like: ‘No, she won’t accept that if I buy it for her’, so I have to search for another product.”

The need for change

Globally, governments spend approximately $570 billion a year on subsidies to food producers, which gives them the power to make food more sustainable and nutritious – if they choose to. But a new report from the World Economic Forum says buying habits will be hard to change.

“Consumer food patterns and behaviours are deeply rooted in habit and culture,” says the report Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation, published ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021.

“For behaviour change to happen, consumers need to understand why they should place a higher value on sustainable and healthier foods, and the tangible effects of inaction on their life and health,” the report says.

The Forum says there is an increasingly urgent need to transform food systems so that they can sustainably nourish a growing world population, while providing economic opportunities and livelihoods to urban and rural communities.

Historic food productivity gains have come at “alarming environmental and health costs” and if the world is to produce food systems capable of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, a comprehensive transformation is needed.