Leveraging food systems to combat obesity in the Near East and North Africa (NENA)

Start Date
September 23, 2019
School children are collecting green spinach leaves
©FAO/Hasan Bilal - School children are collecting green spinach leaves from their school garden established by FAO in Syria.

23-24 September 2019. Cairo, Egypt. In a joint workshop on "Leveraging food systems to combat obesity in the Eastern Mediterranean, Near East and North Africa regions", the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Health Organization (WHO) are calling on governments to transform food systems to enable communities and individuals to make healthy choices and eat healthier food.

The causes of obesity are abundantly evident. They range from the absence of optimal fetal nutrition, unhealthy infant and child feeding practices, the increasing availability and promotion of unhealthy foods to lack of awareness and education and physical inactivity. While part of the solution lies in better nutrition education, it also depends on the availability of affordable, high quality and diverse food, including fresh products. This requires a much closer linkage between food producers and consumers, for the benefit of both communities.

"Making affordable, healthy diets accessible is possible. If governments put in place public policies and laws aimed at influencing food environments for healthy diets. The region's dependency on food imports is increasing. This can contribute to a rise in overweight and obesity. Global food markets have increased the accessibility of ultra-processed food that is very cheap but energy-dense and nutrient poor, high in fat, sugar and salt. In this regard, governments need to consider the way that food is produced, as well as how it is processed, stored, distributed, marketed and consumed"Mr Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa
"Unhealthy diets are one of the key contributors to the burden of noncommunicable diseases in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region, and rates of breastfeeding, which protects against obesity and noncommunicable diseases later in life, are low. Obesity and noncommunicable diseases can, however, be addressed through a food systems approach, with greater focus on promoting breastfeeding, increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables, and implementing salt, fat and sugar reduction strategies". Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. 

A "food systems" approach

A "food systems" approach to obesity looks at the entire food chain, from the farm to the plate, and seeks to promote changes in the way that food is produced, processed, distributed and consumed. It includes reducing consumption of highly processed food and bringing producers closer to consumers.

  • Governments can transform food systems to improve access to affordable healthy diets, as well as develop and effect policies that promote/normalize healthy eating and living.
  • Civil society groups, including nongovernmental organizations and the media, can work with individuals and communities to educate and diffuse key messages on the potent effects of overweight and obesity on health during childhood and adulthood, as well as the importance of adopting healthy behaviours like good dietary practices and active living.
  • The private sector can help bringing consumers closer to producers, and promote food systems that are both healthier and more sustainable.
  • Individuals and families can adopt healthier behaviours, share experiences, as well as ask for support and support others.

Extract of the programme: Session 3: Food supply chain for healthier diets

  • Case study from Kenya: transforming wasted crops with high nutrient components into shelf stable products - Agriprocity, Ms Nicole Rogers, Founder and Chief Executive Officer
  • Diversification of production systems for dietary diversity - Ms Beza Dessalegn, ICARDA-Egypt             



  • Mapping the sources of salt / TFA / Sugar in a traditional and locally produced diet in Egypt - Dr Ghada Ismail, Professor of Clinical and Chemical Pathology, Ain Shams University
  • Food systems analysis for the prevention of overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases - Ms Ceren Gurkan, Food Security Officer, FAO HQ, Rome


24/09. FAO Regional Office for Near East and North Africa. Broken food systems and poor diets are increasing rates of obesity