Aiming to inspire action toward improving population health and well-being, the WHO has unveiled an action guide for sports event organizers. The agency says it hopes to redefine sports’ role in achieving this goal.
The WHO developed the guide, titled the “Healthier food and healthier food environments at sports events,” in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health in Qatar to continue the partnership of both organizations during the FIFA World Cup Qatar in 2022. At this event, the partners ensured that over 30% of the menu items had a healthy nutritional profile aligned with WHO standards.
At the launch event, Kaia Engesveen, technical officer in the multisectoral action in food systems unit at the WHO, introduced the guide. She notes that though sports should promote good health, “foods and beverages high in fats, sugars or salt are typically abundant and often consumed in excess by fans on match days.”
“Over recent years, countries have shown great progress in adopting healthy food environment policies for several settings. Sports events should be one setting where national governments might take the lead and require healthier food and environments.”
Katrina Lundberg, WHO nutrition consultant, who provided technical contributions to the guide, adds: “Though the guide is targeted toward large sports events, many of the principles also apply to league or community sports. WHO hopes to see sports events become environments that support health for all.”
Improving food offer
The action guide advises sports events organizers to improve the food offer, set prices to incentivize healthier food choices, nudge consumers toward more nutritious food choices through product presentations, communicate and promote healthy diets and restrict the marketing of foods and beverages high in fats, sugars or salt, primarily to protect children.
The guide builds on WHO technical expertise in supporting public food procurement and service policies for a healthy diet, nudging to promote healthy eating in other general settings, thereby targeting overweight, obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases.
The report defines healthier food as containing less fats, sugars or salt per portion than similar options. Moreover, they should not be excessively high in energy (calories) and include recommended food groups such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes. For beverages, the WHO recommends encouraging safe water instead of sugar-sweetened drinks.
In its drive for healthier foods, the WHO advises against non-sugar sweeteners for weight control and urges countries to adopt mandatory salt reduction strategies. “Improving the food offer means to ensure that individual menu options are healthier. That there are healthier options on the menus and that these are available at more points in and around the stadium,” explains Engesveen.
“To achieve this goal, it might be necessary to re-formulate recipes to ensure that they meet nutrition criteria,” she continues. “Where reformulation is impossible, replacing unhealthy options for healthier ones may be necessary.” The guide contains twelve recipe cards for healthier versions of popular meals and snacks that can be served at sports events, such as a vegetable pizza, an egg burrito and a nut and dried fruit salad.
In addition, the guide emphasizes the need for planning. It includes tips on planning, operational and post-event phases, including directions to build a team and partnerships, assess the current food offer, set nutrition criteria and price incentives for healthier food and plan for monitoring and evaluation.
FIFA World Cup Qatar
During the guide’s launch, Dr. Roberto Bertollini, adviser for public health of the minister of health of Qatar, shared experiences of enhancing the healthier food offer and environment during last year’s FIFA World Cup.
“We succeeded in providing healthier food options, and therefore, we demonstrated an alignment or food offer with public health values and principles,” he underscores. “We piloted a collaboration model and generated lessons to be replicated at future post events, offering healthier food environments.”
Visitors to the sports event in Qatar had access to around 30% healthier food options within stadia and 21% in the FIFA Fan Festival, based on WHO criteria. “These figures might not look very big, but they compare with almost zero, which was the situation before in other events and also before we acted in this direction,” emphasizes Bertollini.
Based on his experiences, he emphasizes the need for early planning and engagement. Organizers should involve various organization levels for alignment and consider logistics, resources and food supplies to deliver healthier options.
Moreover, he suggests training staff on new policies and practices, led by nutrition experts, and developing proactive communication plans. Organizers should also establish regular monitoring and evaluation procedures with measurable indicators.
Healthier food offer
Although the WHO targets sports event organizers with the guide, the organization notes it can also be used by governments, local authorities and sports stadium managers to create healthy public food procurement and service policies for sports settings.
Also speaking at the launch, Diane Harries, senior health scientist in the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the CDC, emphasizes that having healthy food available and affordable in retail food settings allows people to make healthier food choices.
“When healthy foods are unavailable, people may settle for foods that are higher in calories and lower in nutrition. This is why creating and supporting environments that make it easy for people to choose healthy options is an important public health.”
“Research has shown that educating individuals on the benefits of eating enough fruits and vegetables is important but not enough to change behavior and improve dietary habits. Experts recommend improving the availability and affordability of healthy foods in our communities.”
Moreover, Harries notes that patrons of sporting events are increasingly demanding healthier options, plus foods that meet cultural and personal dietary needs, such as allergen-free menu items.
At the same time, Lundberg cautions that changing the status quo around food offerings in privately organized events is challenging. “Part of our experience was to highlight that the changes being made need not mean only serving salads (although they can be a good option). Highlighting easy wins, small changes to existing options, for example, through reformulation.”
By Jolanda van Hal