Health Minister Recep Akdağ introduced the ministry’s new campaign to combat obesity at a press conference on June 27. Stating that the disease has become an epidemic not only in Turkey but all over the world, Akdağ added that the aim of the ministry is to raise public awareness regarding the issue of obesity and create a healthier society. About the ministry’s action plan to prevent obesity, Akdağ stated that family practitioners will monitor their patients’ weight, inform them about the high risks of weight-related diseases and help them with weight control. Family practitioners will also distribute pedometers to their patients. Furthermore, the ministry will use advertisements to raise people’s awareness of the importance of taking regular body mass index (BMI) tests.
Minister Akdağ, as quoted in Today’s Zaman on June 28, explains: “About 3 million people per year lose their lives due to weight-related diseases worldwide. Lack of physical activity and excessive weight cause many diseases. What should be done to reduce the risk of developing obesity? People should avoid foods rich in flour and sugar. People should eat less in general. People should not eat when they are not hungry and should stop eating before they are full. People should also do at least half an hour of walking a day.”
Akdağ also stated that the ministry plans to reduce the high content of sugar in fruit drinks and carbonated beverages, which are commonly consumed by people. Recent scientific research conducted in France has shown that such drinks have 100 grams of sugar per liter (corresponding to approximately 20 sugar cubes).
Working jointly with the Health Ministry, the Food, Agriculture and Livestock Ministry plans to provide color-coded labels for food and drinks, which contain high levels of sugar and salt to raise public awareness regarding the issue. This ministry also brought some changes to bread that went into effect as of July 1. The salt level in bread was reduced, while the amount of bran in bread was increased. Bakeries that don’t comply with these recent changes will face TL 10,000 fines.
While nutrition and diet experts approve of these measures, they say they are insufficient and that more should be done to decrease the level of obesity in Turkey.
Dr. Funda Elmacıoglu, president of the Marmara University department of nutrition and dietetics, told Sunday’s Zaman that she appreciates all the recent measures introduced by the ministries to combat obesity. Focusing primarily on recent changes concerning bread, Elmacıoğlu said that reducing the level of salt and increasing the amount of bran in bread are very useful steps, but the Food, Agriculture and Livestock Ministry should also promote the use of whole wheat bread instead of white bread, which is made from wheat flour that has had its bran and germ removed. Whole wheat bread, in addition to being rich in B vitamins, also contains more fiber, which is very low in white bread. This high level of fiber makes people feel full, while white bread causes one to get hungry easily by triggering insulin secretion.
The role of large plates
Elmacıoğlu also drew attention to the relationship between serving food on large plates and the high rates of obesity. Offering an alternative measure to reduce obesity, Elmacıoğlu stated that serving plates are almost as large as trays. “Portion sizes of meals also become larger along with the size of the plates, causing people to eat much more than they would normally eat,” Elmacıoğlu noted. Stating that portion sizes in cafes and restaurants are very large and that food is very salty and greasy in these places, Elmacıoğlu stated that the Health Ministry should involve restaurant or café owners in combating obesity. “The awareness of cooks in these restaurants or cafes should be raised, and they should be trained in healthy nutrition. Such places should also take some responsibility in this regard. The Food, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Ministry should conduct regular inspections in these places and warn cooks to prepare foods that comply with the principles of healthy nutrition,” Elmacıoğlu further added.
Elmacıoğlu stated that eating less and having a much more active life are crucial to combating obesity. Nil Şahin Gürhan, a nutritionist and dietician who spoke to Sunday’s Zaman, said she approves of the efforts of the two ministries to fight obesity. About the recent changes concerning bread, Gürhan stated that bread is an indispensable part of the Turkish table, so it is very important to consume high-quality bread with a healthier content. “We will be consuming much healthier bread that is richer in B vitamins and protein with the new changes.” Gürhan noted.
In regards to the distribution of pedometers to people by the Health Ministry, Gürhan stated that almost 50 percent of obesity occurs due to lack of physical activity. “By distributing these pedometers, the Health Ministry encourages people to walk more, so it is a very important step. Such things are small steps, but they will produce positive results in the long run.” Gürhan added.
In response to the question “What should be done further to combat obesity?” Gürhan stated that public awareness should be raised about healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.
Recalling that Akdağ said in one of his interviews that municipalities should do their part in fighting against obesity, Gürhan added that they should provide places where people can do sports and conduct sport activities to encourage an active life, primarily for children.
Gürhan stated people are not as aware as they should be about what obesity is and its health risks. “People decide to lose weight because of aesthetic concerns. They don’t decide to lose weight to avoid possible health risks caused by excess weight. Therefore, awareness should be raised in this regard.”
Taylan Kümeli, a nutritionist and dietician, told Sunday’s Zaman that Turks have misconceptions about nutrition. “These misconceptions and the traditional dining habits of Turkish people are among the most important reasons behind the high rate of obesity. They are unaware of how to cook healthy food or how much they should consume,” Kümeli noted.
Kümeli is at odds with other interviewees on changes concerning bread. Kümeli said the recent measure to promote the production and consumption of bread with a low glycemic index and that is rich in fiber is not an effective step. “People should also be told why they should consume such bread,” Kümeli added. Stating that Turkish cuisine is limited to a single type of diet, Kümeli added that Turkish people repeatedly consume the same foods, such as bread, other bakery products, rice or bulgur pilaf and butter. “People should diversify their eating habits; they should eat a wide range of foods in small amounts,” Kümeli stated.