Is obesity the next pandemic?

Is our current food system creating the wrong incentives, thus encouraging unhealthy diets?
June 2022
Is obesity the next pandemic?

Our lifestyles have changed a lot in the past 100 years; at the beginning of the 20 century, work involved physical labor like going to the fields and plotting the earth, building cars in factories, or working on the construction of buildings and public works. But today, we live in a very different world, spending most of our time sitting on the sofa, at a desk, or in a car. 

Although our lifestyles have changed so much over the years, our eating habits have not. Back when we were living physically demanding lives it made a lot of sense to consume a huge number of calories at every meal, while today it can be considered an excessive amount. After the Second World War, the entire food industry was designed to provide lots of calories, selling products that were caloric bombs. Today this perspective does not make much sense and these products, together with other factors, are leading to a global pandemic of obesity. 

The increasingly sedentary lifestyles we are living is a significant part of this problem, this becomes clear when we look at some global statistics. According to The Lancet and the WHO, 78% of teenage boys and 85% of teenage girls (11-17 years old) worldwide do not meet daily physical activity recommendations. Newer generations are spending more and more time in front of screens as their attention is captivated by media like TikTok, Youtube, Netflix, or Fortnite. According to data from the Spanish government, 21% of children and adolescents in our country spend more than two hours per day playing videogames, a number that increases to 49% on the weekends. This is a global issue: according to the government agency Public Health England (which has an abundance of relevant data thanks to their country wide strategy against obesity), 63% of adults in the UK are above a healthy weight with half of those living with obesity. Additionally, 1 in every 3 children coming out of primary school is either overweight or obese.

To make matter worse, obesity is not evenly distributed among social classes. According to Public Health England, obesity is more prevalent among the most deprived groups of society. Children are especially affected by this as those living in the most deprived parts of England are more than twice as likely to be obese than children that live in the wealthiest areas.

The data is very troubling, and this issue needs to be center stage at every food and beverage company and at every executive committee. An overweight population is not an issue of aesthetics or looks; it is about cardiovascular problems, increased diabetes, and other health issues that are damaging to our society and put an unnecessary strain on our healthcare systems down the road. 

So why is this happening?

Our current food system is designed in such a way that creates the wrong incentives for people that don’t have the tools, knowledge, or willingness to improve their diet. Things like the wrong promotions, high fat or salt products, junk food, and supersized products together with an increasingly sedentary life are the main causes of this approaching pandemic. However, this isn’t a system that needs to come crashing down, rather we simply need to tweak it and make it work better. Food companies are part of the solution, not the problem. This problem isn’t about massive regulation either, we need to treat citizens as adults and empower and educate them, not patronize them by telling them what they can or can’t eat. We need to develop a long-term strategy to promote a systemic change and solve this complex problem of obesity.

Here are three ideas we need to think about to begin developing a solution to this issue.

One, how might food companies foster a more sustainable and healthy diet in our society? Here in Spain, we should look at and try to recover the diet and lifestyle of our grandparents: a true Mediterranean diet with lots of exercise, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Second, how can food companies promote and incentivize an active lifestyle in kids to stop them from being as sedentary as they are? Finally, how can food companies and administrations encourage kids to learn about food, nutrition, and cooking? As people cook less and less, we lose a social and cultural intangible of great value, a part of our culture. When people know about food and how to cook it, it is much easier for them to take care of themselves.

We need to think about these issues as an industry and work together to make a change in our society. Additions to our education system could be one step to solving this issue, perhaps by introducing a subject about food and nutrition in our schools. One thing is for sure, it would be foolish to allow our society to lose that fundamental part of our identity that is “knowing how to eat”.

Main image: Bartholomeus van der Helst
Is obesity the next pandemic?Jaime Martín
Founding partner & CEO