The economics behind obesity: How can nutrition make us rich?

By Nikki Cutler contact

- Last updated on GMT

Healthy nutrition could end the obesity epidemic and make us richer, according to an industry expert, who suggests the economy is keeping the consumer fat.

This was the view given by Adrian Daniel, head of R&D & Scientific Affairs and global head of science at Abbott Nutrition UK, during his presentation on ‘food as medicine’ at the Future Food-Tech summit in London last week.

Daniel says Eric Finkelstein had it right with his ’Fattening of America’ theory, which argues the obesity epidemic has emerged from first world populations gaining access to a ‘fantastic range’ of calories at low prices at the same time as it becoming more expensive for the consumer  to remain inactive.

“We make more money sitting still tapping our fingers than if we are up and about,” ​Daniel explained.

“We have to pay for gym memberships and take time out of our day to go and exercise so as individuals our personal economy is thriving through the creation of the obesity epidemic and with that we have many illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, stroke and cancer and we are suffering a low quality of life as we age.

 “The healthcare industry is coming up with drugs and treatments for these illnesses but is there an alternative approach where we can use our nutrition as medicine to create solutions that prevent the illnesses?”

He pointed out that trials have shown it’s possible to reverse type 2 diabetes through ‘very dramatic diets’ - the patient only consumes 800 calories a day for eight weeks, then sticks to a strict weight management diet for the next six months.

“Shouldn’t we be jumping on that intervention to create products to really evolve this? The trouble is that our economy and the business models do not yet fit.”

Good health; good wealth

Daniel said he helped carry out a study in the ‘diabetic capital of the world’ India, to test how nutrition could be used to cut the rate of this disease.

“We screened the employees of a large multi-national corporate company and found that 20% of them were pre-diabetic with high blood sugar levels.

“With a digitally enabled lifestyle intervention over six months we could bring half of those pre-diabetics back to normal - through diet.”

The doctor of philosophy went on to say that height, as a biomarker, is one ‘very accurate predictor of individual personal economic success’ and, of course, that nutrition has a large impact on a person’s growth.

“Poor nutrition through childhood is a great indicator of personal success in adult life.

“We at Abbott have looked at this area for many years. It’s not a consumer product as such but we have a complete nutrition product in a bottle providing all the nutrition needed for good complete optimal growth.

“We carried out a trial with malnourished children - between the ages of around two and eight years – and found that within three months of intervention you get accelerated growth, and it’s dramatic.

“We asked parents about their children’s activity and diet diversity and both of these elements also went up so this shows those children that were previously undernourished became more active and engaged and gained a lot of lifestyle benefits. They also had less sick days.”

Who pays?

Daniel argues these approaches prove nutritional interventions can correct and prevent certain health conditions but the business models need to be in place in order to administer these solutions through our healthcare systems.

“The trouble is that we need the business models to meet strong consumer needs, fit into lifestyles and if we are going to use it as medicine to correct medical conditions we need collaboration through the government funded services, the life insurance companies and most importantly, the doctors.

“Healthcare payers have trouble understanding the value of food and so have trouble reimbursing for it. It’s yet to be seen whether it is the health care providers that pay for the nutrition or whether the consumers pay for it.

“This whole approach of prevention needs behaviourally change programmes for consumers and nutrition has to be a part of that. It will depend what you are paying to prevent as to how valuable the payers will see the nutrition.

“Whether the consumers become educated enough to pay for the nutrition themselves is yet to be decided.”

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