COVID-19 has turned the spotlight on the other pandemic: obesity

The COVID-19 highlighted the risks created by another rising health emergency: obesity. The prevalence of obesity has nearly tripled in the past four decades and continues to rise.

Obese people are at higher risk of complications or dying from COVID-19, while they are also vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The United Nations (UN) warned in 2020 that obesity is a « pandemic in its own right. »

The stricter rules have forced more disclosure on food labels. Now money managers, concerned about the social impact of their investments, are pressuring food companies to take action.

1. What relates obesity to COVID-19?

Being obese, which generally means having a body mass index of 30 or more, decreases lung capacity and is related to impaired immune function. Obese people diagnosed with COVID-19 were more than twice as likely to be hospitalized, 74 percent more likely to need an intensive care unit and 48 percent more likely to die, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research has also linked obesity to lower responses to numerous vaccines. Meanwhile, a UK survey identified twice as many people who gained weight than lost it during the initial pandemic shutdown in early 2020.

2. How widespread is obesity?

About 39 percent of adults, or more than 1.9 billion people, were overweight in 2016, and of these more than 650 million were obese, according to the World Health Organization. Obesity is due in part to economic success: wealthy populations eat more. But the poor in rich countries tend to have higher obesity rates than the rich, and obesity is increasing in developing countries as well. Countries as varied as Indonesia and Brazil have undernourished and overweight communities.

3. What causes obesity?

The reasons are complex: diet, genetics, lack of exercise and social environment influence. The Fast food restaurant meals, ultra-processed foods, and soft drinks are among the culprits. Industrially prepared foods, generally loaded with salt, fat, sugar and additives, account for more than half of the calories consumed in the United States and the United Kingdom, where they are often cheaper than fresh foods. Globally, more than 3 billion people cannot afford healthy and nutritious diets, according to the UN.

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4. How great is the cost of obesity?

The obese people tend to lead shorter and less healthy lives. It is projected that the treatment of Overweight-related conditions will cost the G-20 nations on average 8.7 percent of their health budgets over the next three decades. Overweight children are more likely to miss school and less likely to complete higher education. One study found that cutting calories by 20 percent in energy-dense foods like potato chips and candy in 42 countries could prevent more than 1 million cases of chronic disease per year. If unhealthy eating and obesity are not addressed, the related health costs will exceed $ 1.3 trillion a year in the next decade, the UN estimates.

5. How have the authorities responded?

Over the past decade, government officials, alarmed by the trend, have taken action, primarily with specific taxes and new food labeling regulations. While some steps have been controversial and criticized as unwarranted state interference or revenue-raising exercises, the research shows they have had an effect. Before the pandemic, taxes on sugary drinks were introduced in countries from Mexico to the Philippines. San Francisco and Seattle were among the eight cities in the United States that passed so-called soda taxes, with about 1 cent per 30 milliliters. Another was Philadelphia, following a campaign backed by Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. Now other countries are increasing the pressure. The UK is moving to curb junk food advertising and force cafes and restaurants to put calorie labels on their menus.

6. How are investors getting involved?

Some fund managers are reviewing their holdings, pressuring food companies to reveal more information and analyzing the medical literature as part of an investment trend with environmental, social or governance objectives in mind. At least 55 institutional investors with a total of $ 7.7 trillion in assets have signed on to the Access to Nutrition Initiative push for manufacturers to take a number of actions, such as linking management pay to quality goals of food and make healthy products more accessible. By the end of 2020, they included Aviva and Storebrand. Stephane Soussan, a portfolio manager at CPR Asset Management in Paris, said the backlash could resemble the divestment move from fossil fuels.

7. How has the industry responded?

The Manufacturers are reformulating products, but there is a long way to go. Coca-Cola was criticized by health experts when it was revealed in 2015 that it was funding research to emphasize exercise, rather than reducing calories, as the key to losing weight. One of the reasons companies are hesitant is that reformulation can ruin the taste of a brand. Some simply package their products in smaller quantities.

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