• Obesity is a complex and chronic disease.
  • Poorer people are more likely to be affected by the illness.
  • Calls for a shift away from blaming the individual - and toward patient-friendly healthcare expertise.

Today, 1.9 billion adults are overweight and 650 million people live with obesity - 40 million of those being children aged 0-5. If current trends continue, in 2022 there will be more children and adolescents living with obesity than being moderately or severely underweight.

Although obesity is widely recognised as a serious public health issue, it is often considered to be the responsibility of the individual. Even worse, today’s society has many aspects which promote obesity: for example, more people in sedentary work and wider availability of processed food high in fat and sugar. Consequently, obesity contributed to four million deaths in 2015 and associated health complications are skyrocketing.

Obesity is not just about lifestyle

Obesity is a complex, chronic disease that is influenced by multiple aspects - including physiological, psychological, genetic, environmental and socioeconomic factors. Multiple hormones play an important role in regulating food intake through appetite and food cravings. People with obesity may have alterations in levels of these hormones, or resistance to their actions.

People with obesity are at risk of many serious health complications, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, as well as certain types of cancer.

Meanwhile, obesity – like many other chronic diseases - is more prevalent among people with lower socio-economic status, simply due to unequal distribution of access to health care, healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.

obesity disease epidemic global healthcare
Where obesity places the biggest burden on healthcare
Image: OECD, Statista

We need to tackle obesity across sectors

Obesity prevention is – or should be – a public health concern. And the concern should drive concerted action to promote health, prevent early mortality and morbidity, and enhance quality of life.

It will also require a shift in our attitudes towards people with obesity and an understanding of the real drivers of the disease, which in turn needs a broad societal response. To successfully tackle obesity, we must:

1. Give people living with obesity equal rights to patient-friendly care, to the same standards as those living with other serious chronic conditions.

2. Engage with broad coalitions of actors - including policymakers, people with obesity, healthcare professionals and the private sector - to understand what obesity is and how it can be addressed.

3. Create environments where the easy choice is the healthy choice for food, exercise and transportation.

We take our share of the responsibility to act.

In recent years, we have embarked on initiatives that aim to help societies tackle and prevent obesity.

Over the past five years, University College London, The Steno Diabetes Centre Copenhagen and Novo Nordisk have worked to put the prevention of diabetes and obesity on the agenda in cities through the Cities Changing Diabetes programme. Today, more than 25 cities with more than 180 million inhabitants across the globe and hundreds of local partners are engaged in finding and implementing new solutions to known problems. The collaboration seeks to for example integrate health into city planning, transportation and infrastructure, so that more citizens walk or bike to school or work. Or to establish healthy food policies and eliminate food deserts.

Recently, we have joined efforts with UNICEF to combine our two organisations’ expertise, reach and convening power to contribute to preventing childhood overweight and obesity. Whilst global in scope, the collaboration will seek to develop solutions in Mexico and Colombia – two countries with significantly higher than average rates of childhood obesity. It is our hope that lessons learnt in these countries will be relevant for other countries in the region – and potentially beyond.

There is no time to waste. Bold and concerted action to reduce the burden of obesity is needed now. No single company, NGO, research institution or government can do this by themselves.

We welcome a dialogue with anyone who is willing to change the status quo of obesity.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about epidemics?

Epidemics are a huge threat to health and the economy: the vast spread of disease can literally destroy societies.

In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to them during outbreaks.

Our world needs stronger, unified responses to major health threats. By creating alliances and coalitions like CEPI, which involve expertise, funding and other support, we are able to collectively address the most pressing global health challenges.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum to tackle global health issues? Find out more here.