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A holistic approach to tackling ‘globesity’

Mar 13 2017

The obesity rate among adults and children in the world has more than doubled since 1980, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The issue has become known as “globesity.” Aetna International believes a holistic approach that includes food manufacturers, retailers, governments, employers and health insurance companies can tackle globesity and help people decide to live healthier lives.

“Everyone knows of the dangers of globesity,” said Sneh Khemka, MBChB, MRCOphth, (hon) MFPH, president of Population Health for Aetna International, “but the time for talking is over. The time for action is here.”

The cover of a white paper about global obesity rates published by Aetna International in March 2017.

Aetna International compiled data from the WHO, United Nations, governments and the global food industry to provide an accurate picture of globesity. The findings and recommendations were published in a March 2017 report, “Globesity: tackling the world’s obesity pandemic.”

As obesity rates increase, so does risk of health complications and medical costs

People with obesity are more prone to developing some chronic conditions, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. They can also suffer from other health complications, such as stroke, several forms of cancer, clinical depression and lower quality of life.

13 percent of adults around the world are obese and nearly four in 10 are overweight

Communities also suffer from obesity, through increased medical costs, loss of productivity at work and more consumption of fuel for transportation. Cornell University researchers found $315.8 billion was spent worldwide on medical costs associated with obesity – a 48 percent increase since 2005 after adjusting for inflation.

Employers, insurers helping encourage a healthy lifestyle

Experts with Aetna International believe employers can help employees fight against obesity by providing opportunities for exercise and better food options at on-site cafeterias.

For example, Nomura International, which was named Britain’s healthiest large employer in 2014 and 2016 by Vitality, provides a full-time medical clinic, free three-hour health assessments and a fully equipped gym with weekly classes. The company also provides parking for 250 bicycles and a program to purchase a bike through payroll deduction to commute to work.

6.3 percent of children younger than 5 years old are overweight or obese

While these are largescale changes, employers can make smaller adjustments that can be worthwhile. Changing what’s offered in vending machines or installing standing desks, for example, can contribute to a healthier day.

For health insurance companies, charging a higher premium for people who are obese and offering incentives to those who lose weight can be a step farther than providing free annual checkups.

Some insurance companies are using data to help forecast the health of some members. Using this system, Humana identified members who were predisposed to type 2 diabetes and connected them with a personalized health coach, digital tracking tools and programs to help prevent the condition. Within six months, the members lost an average 8.7 percent of total body weight.

Government help can lead to the right choices

With a combination of education programs, taxes and incentives, governments around the world can help people make the right decisions. The World Health Organization’s Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases stated the right mix of taxes and incentives can have a demonstrable effect on nutrition.

The United States tested the effectiveness of warning labels placed on sugar-sweetened beverages. The labels warned how drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Parent who saw the label were significantly less likely to purchase the beverage than those who saw a calorie label.

In the United Kingdom, the government announced a new tax on sugary drinks in March 2016. Within two years, the tax will raise the cost of a can of Coca-Cola by 11 percent. The tax is expected to generate £520 million — $632,486,400 — and will go towards primary (elementary) school sports programs.

Berkeley, California, recently completed a similar pilot in 2014. The city placed a 1 cent-per-ounce tax on the distribution of soda, energy and sports drinks, fruit-flavored drinks and sweetened water, coffee and tea. The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in Berkeley decreased by 21 percent in one year and the tax generated $1.5 million in eight months. The money will benefit programs to address obesity.

In Hampden County, Massachusetts, researchers found families were more likely to consume fruits and vegetables if they received a 30 percent rebate for purchasing them.

Better access, better choices in retail locations

People need better food options to choose from. Changing how food is produced and advertised can lead to people making healthier choices.

Five years after the Food Standards Agency in the U.K. set salt-reduction standards, salt content in foods dropped by 10 to 40 percent.

How grocery stores display certain foods can also contribute to people’s buying habits. A study in the U.S. compared food displays in specialty grocery stores with those in discount grocery stores and large retailers. Fruits and vegetables were displayed predominately in the front entrance of most specialty grocery stores, while junk food was displayed in the main entrance of many lower-priced stores.

To address the obesity issue among children, making the default food choices healthier options can be beneficial. Sodexo, a food-service company, changed children’s menus at museums, zoos and science centers in 2014. Water or low-fat milk is now the default beverage and a fruit or non-fried vegetable is the default side dish at 65 percent of its facilities.

A team effort to create healthier lives

You can’t force someone to do something. Helping people fight against obesity and having a higher quality of life can be a difficult task. But it can be easier to cut down on the obesity pandemic in the world when different entities are working together to offer support.

“Be in charge of your own destiny and do something about it today – Make a simple change to your diet by skipping a sugary drink or a daily sweet, or walk for an extra 10 minutes every day,” said Mitesh Patel, M.D., a medical director for Aetna International. “Small incremental steps can make a huge difference without having to change your lifestyle radically.”