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Obesity Sparks Government Action/Snack Foods Get Healthier, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Obesity is increasing in countries throughout the world.  The problem is acute in the U.S., where obesity is unfortunately very common and has deep links to the high overall cost of health care.  Obesity is a much more serious problem than being merely overweight—see the box regarding “Body Mass Index (BMI)” that follows.
According to the World Population Review, approximately 2.1 billion people were obese as of 2023 (about 30% of the global population).  More than 2.8 million people die per year from obesity related conditions according to the World Health Organization.  The global obesity rate has tripled since 1975.
Numbers from the U.S. CDC (Centers for Disease Control) show that obesity is a massive problem in America, one capable of generating vast annual expenses for treatment of chronic diseases related to obesity.  For 2017-2020, the CDC found that 41.9% of all adults over age 20 were obese.

Body Mass Index (BMI) as an indicator of health status based on weight:
Underweight = less than 18.5 BMI
Normal weight = 18.5 to 24.9
Overweight = 25 to 29.9
Obese = 30 or more
To calculate Body Mass Index:
First: divide weight (pounds) by height (inches)
Second: divide the result by height again
Third: multiply the result by 703
Internet Research Tip:
Source: National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

     A 2014 report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that the annual global cost for lost productivity and the treatment of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers related to obesity is $2 trillion.  An “Obesity Update 2017” published by the OECD estimated that an obese person incurs 25% higher health costs than a person of normal weight in a given year, and that obese people earn up to 18% less than non-obese people.  In 2020, the Milken Institute, a nonprofit group focused on advanced pharmaceuticals and health care research, estimated the combined economic and social impact of obesity (including such factors as missed days at work and reduced household income), to be $1.4 trillion yearly in the U.S. alone.  A Swedish study found that people who are obese are three times more likely to receive disability payments and have twice as many sick days as non-obese people.
One of the most critical problems of obesity is the onset of diabetes.  The impact of the soaring diabetes problem combined with an accompanying rise in heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels may wreak havoc on the global health care system.
However, there are exciting next-generation drugs which show great promise in treating obesity and related diseases.  The key is the use of these drugs to act as a “GLP-1 receptor agonist.”  That is, they work by acting like a hormone that occurs naturally, known as GLP-1.  (GLP stands for glucagon-like peptide.)  The result is an increase in the feeling of being full and a corresponding reduction in appetite.  In other words, a person may feel quite full and satisfied with a small portion of pasta while on the drugs, who in the past might have had a compulsion to eat two or three large servings.  The new drugs which have received FDA approval include Semaglutide (under the brand names Wegovy and Ozempic) and Tirzepatide (under the brand name Mounjaro).  
The alarming rise in obesity in the U.S. has brought about significant changes in the latest set of dietary guidelines from the U.S. federal government.  The 2020-2025 federal dietary guidelines were the result of more than a year’s work by an anonymous panel of nutrition experts in the fields of pediatrics, obesity, cardiovascular disease and public health.  Panel members remain anonymous to avoid lobbying from food industry groups such as the Soft Drink Association, the Wheat Foods Council, the National Dairy Council and the United Fresh Produce Association.  Final results were presented by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
By law, federal dietary guidelines must be revised every five years based on the latest research.  The 2020-2025 guidelines recommend eating more fruits and vegetables, filling half of meal plates with them, moving to low-fat and fat-free milk or yogurt, varying proteins and drinking and eating less sodium, saturated fat and added sugars.  Even the USDA’s food pyramid has been abandoned in favor of a plate showing representative portions of vegetables, fruit, grains and protein and a nearby glass representing dairy.
The impact of the recent guidelines on the food industry is significant.  The snack food industry (which tends to make heavily salted snacks) is facing a challenge since the recommended sodium level for about one-half the U.S. population (those who are 51 years of age or older, are African American, or suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease) is only 1,500 milligrams per day.
Walmart has slashed salt, fat and sugar in the grocery products it sells.  It completed a five-year plan in which sodium would be reduced by 25%, industrially added trans fats are to be eliminated and added sugars will be reduced by 10% in packaged foods manufactured under its Great Value house brand.  The company also announced plans to press major food brands to adopt these standards over the mid-term.  Walmart is not alone in these initiatives (ConAgra Foods, for example, reduced sodium in its packaged foods by 20%), but as America’s largest retailer, its focus will have a profound effect on the food industry.  Walmart affixes its Great For You icon on foods such as fresh and packaged fruits and vegetables.
In America’s massive Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in 2010, the U.S. federal government set up a requirement that all restaurant chains with 20 or more restaurants post calorie counts for menu and buffet items.  The FDA ruled that restaurants with at least 20 locations (and vending machines that have at least 20 units) had to post calorie counts.
Healthy Dining Finder,, a web site that promotes restaurants that offer lower-calorie options, estimates that the number of restaurants it lists on its site has grown dramatically.  A number of food companies are promoting products that are lower in calories and fats, and higher in nutrients such as protein, fiber, calcium and certain vitamins.  PepsiCo, Inc. packages such food with a distinctive green label.  To have the label, foods must contain no more than 35% of their calories from fat, contain one gram or less of saturated fats and no trans fats as well as meet limits for cholesterol, sodium and sugar.  Products include Tropicana and Dole juices, Quaker oatmeal, Baked! LAY’S potato chips and Rold Gold pretzels.  Nabisco is also promoting healthier 100 Calorie Packs of many of its popular brands such as Chips Ahoy! and Oreo cookies and Ritz and Teddy Grahams crackers.
The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) is a U.S. effort through the United Way designed to help reduce obesity, especially childhood obesity.  It is a first-of-its-kind coalition that brings together more than 300 retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, restaurants, sporting goods and insurance companies, trade associations and professional sports organizations.  The HWCF is helping consumers lead healthier lives by offering healthier nutrition options.
Along with overeating, sedentary lifestyles are certainly a major contributor to obesity.  Vast numbers of people are spending much of their work hours in front of a computer screen, while more and more of their leisure time is spent playing electronic games, watching TV and enjoying digital media—activities that are not burning many calories.
Some countries have national initiatives focused on obesity.  Singapore, which requires military service of all adults, has instituted an extended six-week training camp for recruits who are obese in addition to its 10-week basic boot camp.  After discharge from the service, most Singaporean men and women remain on reserve status, which requires an annual physical and basic fitness test.

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