Davos 2013: Obesity not a problem for the rich

malnourished child and obese man

At first sight, a photo of emaciated children in developing countries alongside obese people in the West might seem like an apt way to illustrate the massive gap between the rich and the poor.

But it is not, according to experts at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

A truer picture of wealth can be seen during lunch as the WEF is hosting some 2,500 political and business leaders, including many billionaires.

As these inappropriately dubbed "fat cats" tuck into modest portions of healthy food, sipping water or smoothies, it becomes clear that their wealth has not inspired excess - or at least not excessive eating.

Very few of them appear to have any serious weight problems. And given the number of business leaders dressed in ski wear over the weekend, it seems many of them live active lifestyles too.

Davos Man and Woman are not only wealthy but healthy too, which is clearly much better than being sick and poor.

"A couple of years ago, delegates were invited to have their blood pressure and cholesterol tested," according to the speaker at one of the many private talks here.

"The results were very low, so this is a very healthy community."

Access to healthy food

By contrast, both starvation and obesity are closely linked with poverty, and as such they are both symptoms of malnutrition, Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, tells BBC News.

"As countries develop, they often get a double problem," she says.

"Affordable nutritious food is the way to address both. It's about having access to such food."

Buffet lunch at the WEF Lunch on the go: Delegates mingle over the buffet lunch at Davos

Marc Van Ameringen, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, agrees.

"You cannot see undernourishment and obesity as separate phenomenons," he says. "Poor nutrition in the womb and during a child's early life often leads to obesity in later life."

Obesity 'pandemic'

Obesity is not merely a problem in the developing world, adds Prof Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

"There are many places where there's no access to healthy food, and when it is there it is not affordable," she observes.

"Obesity is very much associated with lower financial resources in the US."

Obesity kills 2.8 million adults every year, and in many countries more people die from obesity-related diseases than as a result of undernourishment, according to WEF.

Catering staff at Davos There is no scarcity of food or staff waiting to help at the WEF

And the phenomenon is spreading like wildfire.

"During the past 30 years, the percentage of the world's population that is obese has doubled," according to Prof Fried.

"If this was a communicable disease, we would call it a pandemic."

Will power

As such, obesity poses a huge threat, both to individuals and to society, yet not enough is being done to curb it, believes sportswear maker Nike's access to sports executive, Lisa MacCallum Carter.

Start Quote

Once you become significantly obese, it is very hard to lose weight”

End Quote Prof Linda Fried Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University

"This issue is bankrupting economies and short-changing future generations in a major way," she says, and yet, "we are relying heavily on individuals' will power" as a solution to the problem.

Fat people are often blamed for being greedy and lazy, and for failing to take personal responsibility for their own health, but such an explanation for the phenomenon is far too simplistic, according to both Prof Fried and Ms Carter.

"There's no evidence that there's been a simultaneous global loss of will power," says Prof Fried.

Ms Carter points to how modern living has resulted in sharp drops in activity levels in people's everyday lives. "We have an inactivity crisis," she says.

Eat less, move more

At a basic level, obesity is a result of too little exercise and too much unhealthy food.

But figuring out how to change people's behaviour is far from easy.

Buffet lunch at the WEF Medical professionals and business leaders agree that obesity must be tackled

On the calorie intake side, "it's not like tackling smoking, where you simply give up smoking and that's that", observes Jason Li Yat-Sen, director of the George Institute for Global Health.

After all, we cannot simply stop eating.

Getting people to move enough to burn more calories than they consume is also very difficult, especially if they are obese already.

"Once you become significantly obese, it is very hard to lose weight," says Prof Fried. "The solution is on the side of prevention, and we don't do prevention so well."

Action required

Medical professionals and business leaders broadly agree that they must work with governments to hammer out strategic solutions to halt and reverse the obesity "pandemic".

Start Quote

We need clear targets and accountability by all”

End Quote Marc Van Ameringen Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition

Food and beverage companies must play a role, both by ensuring the food they make is healthier than it is today, as well as by ensuring people can get hold of it at a price they can afford, Nestle's chief executive Paul Bulcke acknowledges.

The insurance industry can also play a central role by rewarding healthy living, including efforts to scale back unhealthy lifestyles, according to Alison Martin, head of life and health at Swiss Reinsurance.

Ms Martin disapproves of the use of rather forceful incentives, such as denying obese people life insurance, as insurance is about mutuality of risk so we'll have to ensure everyone is insurable - though she points out that someone with diabetes and a body mass index of more than 35 will pay twice as much for life insurance.

And structural changes to society - including new ways of working that help people move more rather than sit in front of computers all day, or efforts to make people walk or cycle to work - are useful ways to help people build exercise into their everyday lives.

Urgent action is essential, insists Mr Van Ameringen, and it should come in the form of rigorous agreements between all stakeholders.

"We need clear targets and accountability by all," he says.

You can follow Jorn's coverage from Davos on Twitter @jornmadslien.

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