18 Apr 2023

Type 2 diabetes: Health researcher calls for ministeral taskforce

2:30 pm on 18 April 2023
Prof Jim Mann

Prof Jim Mann Photo: Billy Wong/University of Auckland

Health researchers say the government needs to take large scale action to tackle type 2 diabetes.

Overseas research shows the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has increased in the past years, reaching 483 million people globally.

University of Otago scientist professor Jim Mann, who is at the forefront of diabetes research in New Zealand, was invited to write recommendations on the latest research.

"The important thing about the new research is that it gives us further clues about what needs to be done about the diabetes pandemic and indeed it is a pandemic now," Mann told Morning Report.

Lifestyle change, in particular what we eat, was the single most important determinant of the increasing numbers of people with diabetes, he said.

"What we have been calling for for a long time is not just for government and for the Ministry of Health and for health professionals to say change your eating habits but what is needed is a change in the food environment in the same way people don't give up smoking just because they're told to give up smoking."

An all-of-government approach to the food environment was now needed, he said.

"What we need is either a ministerial taskforce or something equivalent... to look at this across the board," he said.

"It is almost inconceivable that we do not have an overall food strategy in a country where food is so critical to every aspect of our lives."

Reformulation of food, advertising and levies were all things to consider, Mann said.

He acknowledged some people might regard the actions needed as inappropriate but said food was one of the major determinants of health and the health system could not continue to cope with the way things were going.

"But it's a much bigger thing, it's all about our agricultural systems and this is really what is now needed."

Extension of in-school food programme needed - researchers

Health Coalition Aotearoa co-chair and Massey University Research Centre for Hauora and Health associate professor Lisa Te Morenga says the high cost of healthy foods needs to be addressed urgently as eating healthily becomes "increasingly challenging for whānau".

"A recent survey commissioned by Health Coalition Aotearoa found that 83 percent of those surveyed rated the affordability of healthy food as the number one issue facing Aotearoa New Zealand," Te Morenga said.

"The government should prioritise work on developing a package of fiscal levers to reduce the cost of healthy food. For example, this could include reductions in taxes on healthy foods subsidised by levies on sugary drinks and unhealthy foods.

"They should be brave with tougher regulations on the practices of our supermarket duopoly. And they need to explore mechanisms to prevent the cost of domestic food supplies being dictated by export prices."

Lisa Te Morenga, Senior Lecturer in Maori Health and Nutrition at Victoria University

Lisa Te Morenga says whānau are finding it increasingly difficult to afford healthy foods. Photo: © Victoria University of Wellington. All rights reserved.

Health Coalition Aotearoa wants the government to expand the Ka Ora Ka Ako Healthy School Lunch programme to reach at least 50 percent of all school children, up from 25 percent.

"Our government needs to accept that we can't have a profitable junk-food sector and a population in optimal health at the same time.

"It's time to stop enabling an unhealthy food system. We need strong public policy limiting the marketing of unhealthy foods particularly to our children and healthy food policies in all public institutions (especially schools)."

The group's co-chair, Lisa Te Morenga, told Checkpoint while New Zealand should have better food regulation, the legislation should not focus on consumers.

Instead, the government should look at how the production, grocery, and export industries were marketing, pricing, and influencing prices of food, she said.

"We really would like the government to sit around with a whole range of experts to look at what we can do to fiscally reduce the price of food.

"Lowering the cost of the basics that people need to eat, healthy basics, through reducing GST, I think could be a useful mechanism. But it will be complicated. So, it does need a lot of thought put into it."

Auckland University School of Population Health doctoral candidate Pippa McKelvie-Sebileau agreed an extension of the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme was needed.

"The school food system in Aotearoa New Zealand is a great example of how children can be protected from immediate and long-term harm through better nutrition," McKelvie-Sebileau said.

The programme has demonstrated positive effects on food security, student wellbeing and family financial hardship, she said.

"With the cost of living crisis and rising food costs due to failing global food systems, we urgently need a national food security and sovereignty plan and to allow more children to benefit from good food that protects long-term health outcomes through the extension of the Ka Ora, Ka Ako programme to more schools."

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