Schools around the country should operate under a national health food policy to combat diet-related diseases, Otago researchers say.
University of Otago researchers are among a group calling for a nationwide policy to be introduced, building on the health food policy the district health boards have adopted.
"Strategies like a sugar-sweetened beverage tax to reduce consumption of sugary drinks have been shown to work in other countries, are highly cost-effective and could work well in New Zealand," said professor Tony Blakely, one of a group of academics organising a symposium about diet-related disease.
The symposium, "Tackling diet-related disease in New Zealand – the need, the evidence, the priorities" will provide research, discussion and recommendations, and is co-hosted by colleagues from the University of Auckland.
Unhealthy diet is the leading preventable risk for poor health in New Zealand, said professor in human nutrition and medicine at Otago, Jim Mann.
"Despite encouraging recent trends, rates of diet-related disease remain high and are major contributors to inequity of health outcomes in New Zealand," he said.
"There is convincing evidence that dietary changes can profoundly reduce risk but population-based initiatives will be required to facilitate their implementation."
Professor Cliona Ni Mhurchu from the University of Auckland said New Zealand has the third highest levels of obesity in the OECD.
"Our inexorably rising levels of obesity and associated diseases mean we must rethink our approaches to the way we tackle these diseases," Ni Mhurchu said.
The researchers will be presenting the latest evidence that is unique to New Zealand and calling on the Government for strong leadership.
"We urgently need commitment [from the Government and agencies] on new approaches, such as a Government-led reformulation programme to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fats in New Zealand packaged and processed foods."
Another of the symposium organisers, professor Boyd Swinburn from the University of Auckland, said food industry-led "pledges" in the past have not worked.
"Creation of a healthier population food supply requires commitment, strong leadership and legislation by the Government to move this ahead," he said.
The symposium will be opened by Minister of Health David Clark and will feature global perspectives, but also uniquely, New Zealand views from Māori, research and industry.
It starts in Wellington tomorrow.