A 2.0 Approach to Improving Health Through Lifestyle

Nature is good at connectivity. The impact of diverse human activities is observed and absorbed throughout nature. Everything is linked. Nature has no problem with coherence. Ecosystems react with their own logic. Where we humans might see destruction, nature, had it a voice, would speak of logical adaptation.

Politics is different. To make sense of political work inside states and among states, we divide areas of responsibilities into boxes. Some politicians do human health, for example, while others might do environment and climate or food and nutrition. Then we make an effort to secure coherence. But we are not very good at it. On the contrary, as we know all too well, changes in one sector have unexpected implications in others.

I have experienced this both in politics and in international service. As chief of staff at the World Health Organization (WHO), I observed how health problems originate in every other sector than health itself. According to the comprehensive Global Burden of Disease project, the leading risk factors for ill health and premature death are linked to lifestyle, what we eat and drink and how much we exercise. Disease prevention does not occur in the hospital. We need the whole of society to be involved.

As foreign minister of Norway, I learnt how natural changes provoked by climate change are creating new sources of political instability. I experienced how foreign aid for large-scale vaccination projects helps to save the life of children and thus give a real input to growth and to escaping poverty. And, when I held the health portfolio in the government, I experienced in a national setting how the determinants of health and illness may be far beyond the reach of one minister. Norway, too, has to deal with the tide of non-communicable lifestyle diseases. A minister soon finds that success will depend on mobilization far beyond the health sector.

Here is a different approach, one that aims to achieve coherence by learning a lesson or two from nature. The EAT initiative makes a simple proposal against the backdrop of a complex set of issues. At the EAT forum in Stockholm this week, we saw the mobilization of what I would call a "double triple." Three key issue of our times were addressed in one conceptual framework -- nutrition, climate and health -- by players from three critical sectors -- academia, politics and business.

I have coined this a "2.0 approach," drawing inspiration from what the mobile phone manufacturers do when they upgrade their products. What is their trick? As a non-engineer, it seems to me that they integrate the connective potential of the mobile phone at a higher level. That permits applications we could not imagine with existing technology.

To me, this is the meaning of EAT. The idea is that we can achieve more, move faster and go deeper by relating action in the three domains of nutrition, health and climate. We can never reach the goals set by the WHO for rolling back the tide of non-communicable diseases if we do not seriously address diet in rich and poor countries alike. The production of healthy food for a growing world population will depend critically on effective efforts to halt climate change, as documented by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC).

Governments have set targets for most of these agendas. The organizations in the UN system have their action plans. But we need more. We need to find better ways of working with the private sector. We need ambitious, realistic and implementable plans, underpinned by the best evidence from academic institutions.

The EAT initiative sets out to make a difference in this direction. The Stockholm forum in 2014 was a first step. There will be more. Activities will be pursued between the annual forums. Initiatives and proposals emerging from EAT will not challenge the efforts of the UN or any other institution. On the contrary, EAT is an attempt to create more concerted action.

I believe governments should embrace this initiative, and send their representatives to it. So should business and even more academic institutions. A special effort will be made to include partners from the global south, from countries going through the most dramatic phases of development.

As a health minister, I supported the targets set by WHO to reverse the tide of non-communicable diseases. In Norway, I followed up with a dedicated national action plan. I soon discovered the limitations of boxed-in or "silo" politics. We need to go beyond that, engage the food industry, identify areas where action can be triple wins -- improving what we eat and how we produce what we eat, with reduced emissions of harmful greenhouse gases and improved health results as a consequence.

This is the exact purpose of EAT.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the EAT Initiative, in conjunction with the latter's inaugural EAT Stockholm Food Forum (Stockholm, May 26-27, 2014). The EAT Stockholm Food Forum aims to convene thought leaders at the intersection of science, business and politics, to develop integrated strategies and non-linear solutions toward a healthier and more sustainable global food system. For more information about EAT Stockholm Food Forum, read here.