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How nutrition can improve societal resilience

Chronic disease in Europe accounts for 86% of all deaths, and accounting for all these illnesses is poor nutrition.

Chronic disease in Europe accounts for 86% of all deaths, and accounting for all these illnesses is poor nutrition. Image: Unsplash/Brooke Larke

Zara Ingilizian
Head, Consumer Industries; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Andrew Moose
Head of Health and Wellness, World Economic Forum
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  • People are living longer but with health-impeding conditions impacting their quality of life, for which poor nutrition is a root cause.
  • The trajectory of people’s health is destined to overwhelm healthcare systems and impose enormous economic, environmental, and health costs.
  • An evidence-based social change model can help overcome existing barriers to change.

People are living longer but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are living healthier lives. In fact, research has shown that chronic disease is on the rise.

Consider, for instance, that more than half of adults in the United States (60%) have been diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, and 4 in 10 adults have two or more. Meanwhile, chronic disease in Europe accounts for 86% of all deaths, and accounting for all these illnesses is poor nutrition. People are eating more foods high in fat and sugar, leading to obesity, which significantly contributes to a host of health problems.

Yet, messaging on weight often focuses on the number of calories that people consume each day rather than a dual focus on calories and the vitamins, minerals, and type of fat that calories may contain. Data from the United States alone is revealing: in 2018, just one in eight Americans was “metabolically healthy.”

A looming nutrition cost burden

Without a significant global shift towards better nutrition, people suffering from diseases related to, or accelerated by, poor nutrition will soon overwhelm healthcare systems. The economic and environmental impacts are also significant. The annual cost of total global food consumption is $9 trillion, while the related economic, environmental and health costs total $19.8 trillion. The largest driver of those costs, over $11 trillion, comes directly from costs to human health tied to unhealthy diets.

Measuring the current and hidden nutrition related costs.
Measuring the current and hidden nutrition related costs. Image: United Nations Food Systems Summit

Importantly, improving people’s lives through better nutrition presents a significant opportunity for new value creation. Consumers are increasingly seeking products and services that will improve their metabolic health. Corporate venture capitalists are supporting consumer health and nutrition businesses. Current technologies and scientific breakthroughs enable new opportunities to improve health through better nutrition.

Governments are homing in on the issue, in many cases seeking to build on past efforts. And large food and beverage companies, increasingly committed to healthier outcomes for their customers, have been introducing to their portfolios a range of products delivering positive nutrition with reduced calorie, salt, and sugar content.

Disruptors and investors are beginning to fill the supply-demand gap for healthy, appealing food and nutrition.
Disruptors and investors are beginning to fill the supply-demand gap for healthy, appealing food and nutrition. Image: World Economic Forum

Systemic and personal barriers to nutrition

The challenge is ensuring that these efforts coalesce to effect sustainable change at scale. To that end, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform has identified what it believes are the most significant barriers to lasting, widespread change and a viable way to overcome them.

The barriers to change include the lack of science-based global alignment on the purpose and value of nutrition; consumers’ tendencies to undervalue nutrition as a vital component of their health and wellbeing, consumers’ emotional, cultural, and habitual ties to certain diets, the potential and possibility of sugar addiction, tight schedules and affordability.

The solution is rooted in an evidence-based social change model – a virtuous cycle – developed by Edward Walker, a social scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles and Stanford University.

Pivoting consumers toward healthier lifestyles

According to Walker, an initial catalyst generally affects early public consciousness on a particular topic. These catalysts can be individual advocates or organizations that function as strategic, neutral facilitators for stakeholders to coalesce on industry and policy agendas. They can also be exogenous events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

After that spark, action led by institutions – businesses and governments – is unmatched as an accelerant in building widespread, durable social change. In turn, social change agents – individuals or groups, including media, academia and civil society organizations – leverage those reforms, generating broader societal engagement and influencing industry and policy-makers to enact further reforms.

These catalysts raise public consciousness towards better health and nutrition
These catalysts raise public consciousness towards better health and nutrition Image: Edward Walker, University of California Los Angeles, College of Social Sciences

3 A’s of nutrition transformation

How might the primary actors in that social change model best work together to effect lasting improvement in nutrition at scale? The research has led to the development of a framework that all interested actors can use to consider and locate their opportunity to contribute to positive change at scale. This framework focuses on three areas:

1. Increasing the availability of nutritious choices.

2. Increasing access to those options.

3. Enabling and supporting consumer adoption of more nutritious choices as their default.

This 3A framework, along with other insights from the Forum’s New Frontiers of Nutrition community and the Forum’s Food System network, will serve as a guide for engaging the entire nutrition ecosystem. That includes consumers, businesses, civil society, academia and the public sector to identify and drive transformation efforts towards positive nutrition and food systems change.

Have you read?

The Forum’s Future of Consumption Platform has a vision: By 2035, consumers will be empowered through better nutrition to live happier and healthier lives. We hope that this vision and guidance from the Forum’s nutrition community and its initial insights can lay a strong foundation for coordinated action on nutrition. This community’s early findings and initial guidance can be found in its recent paper, “Achieving Societal Resilience: The Nutrition Opportunity.”

The members of the Forum’s nutrition community invite companies to join them in achieving this vision and securing a healthier and more resilient society through improved nutrition for current generations and those to come.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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