Collaboration: The Key to Nutrition Awareness in APAC

Author: Dr. Kent Bradley, M.D., MBA, MPH, Chief Health and Nutrition Officer, Herbalife Nutrition

Asia Pacific (APAC) region is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and ironically more than half of the undernourished children on the planet too. In the wake of the pandemic, government priorities are very much focussed on containing the outbreaks, vaccine procurement and vaccination drives and economic support measures, while healthcare systems continue to operate under immense stress.  It is not unexpected then that the current health crisis has sidelined less “urgent”, longer term agendas like advancing public nutrition awareness and education and multi-sector collaboration to strengthen the overall health system.

The countries in APAC are at varied stages of development economically, socially and on healthcare preparedness. A few countries are driving the agenda of achieving universal healthcare within the next decade. However, the task of achieving superior and universal healthcare coverage is not achievable without active involvement and contribution of key stakeholders. Within healthcare, nutrition is one important factor of health which has been less understood and emphasized. Herbalife Nutrition conducted a survey in early 2020 with 5500 consumers and 250 healthcare professionals (HCPs) from 11 countries to gauge the prevalence and variety of nutrition myths that exist amidst consumers in APAC. The insights from this survey were startling. Multiple myths around nutrition existed amidst consumers and the gap in accurate nutrition knowledge was wide. In addition, consumers pointed to HCPs as the most credible sources of nutrition information. The survey was also administered to HCPs and about 80% of them believed that, nutrition companies should take a larger role in spreading accurate, credible, and timely nutrition information.

The issue of nutrition awareness

According to The Lancet 2019 Global Burden of Disease Study of 195 countries, dietary factors are the single leading cause of death, exacting an even greater health burden than smoking. Excessive consumption of cheaper and unhealthy processed foods which offer little beyond salts, sugars and carbohydrates is on the rise. A few countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines are fighting the triple burden of malnutrition which essentially implies the coexistence of obesity and undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. In such a scenario, it’s imperative to make people across the region understand the importance of nutrition and the actions that can be taken to improve the situation. Apart from the lack of awareness about the science of nutrition, several food and nutrition related myths are also prevalent in the region. The wide existence of these nutrition myths is a testimony of the prevalence of inaccurate and potentially harmful nutrition habits amidst consumers in the region.

Collaborate for success

Collaboration is key to achieving the desired state of nutrition awareness and knowledge in APAC. Multiple sectors and economies are witnessing and experimenting with innovative collaborations and partnerships in the healthcare and technology space. A few of these possible collaborations to bringing about an effective, significant, and agile change now include not one or two but, multiple stakeholders playing a part in the food and nutrition supply chain. The quality and nutritional content of food right from the cultivation stage impacts the eventual state of nutrition in a country. Food manufacturers, suppliers, nutrition companies, advocates and most importantly HCPs who, according to the Herbalife Nutrition Myth survey top the credibility chart, make the most critical peg in the scheme of collaboration.

Drivers of collaboration

I believe there are a few key drivers for collaboration in a region as diverse as Asia Pacific. It starts with a willingness to spark conversations with groups and communities that are outside our usual networks, fusing different perspectives to form innovative solutions in ways we have never considered before. The rapid development, testing and treatment options for COVID-19, for instance, speaks volumes to the power of widespread collaboration among an unlikely group of innovators and investors in addressing a global healthcare challenge.

The pandemic has transformed the way people connect but fundamentally, effective collaborations  across sectors and regions need common communications and educational platforms enabled by technology. Leadership is another driver and we need more pivotal leaders in the nutrition, health, and wellness space to identify a common purpose and convene others to share best practices for the larger good. For example, there is immense value in the closely-aligned, public private partnerships on nationwide healthcare policies in countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand. Looking further, nutrition companies can initiate longer-term collaborations with nutrition foundations and educational societies, to unlock synergies between the former’s commercial and research insights, and the latter’s acumen of grassroots issues.

HCPs and hospitals have a linchpin role to play. Hospital staff like nurses, nutrition consultants and treating physicians; and hospital management, need to work towards optimizing nutrition care in hospitals to improve the prevention, detection, and treatment of malnutrition. For example, there are many ways nurses can teach their patients about proper nutrition, including giving talks at community health centers and health fairs.

It’s now a matter of bringing all the individual efforts together in a comprehensive approach towards the shared vision of healthier and empowered community in Asia Pacific. This is where multi-sector, smart and innovative collaborations stand the best chance of achieving more significant, meaningful, and long-term outcomes. 

This article was originally published in Asian Hospital and Healthcare Management