Partnerships between ‘disparate allies” are necessary to win the fight against obesity, experts argue

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Partnerships of ‘disparate allies' needed in fight against obesity
To win the battle of the bulge and “fix the food system,” advocates for health and nutrition need to work with “disparate allies” that have a stake in the fight against obesity but are not currently on the front lines, according to Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

“Talking about hunger and talking about kids and talking about death and disease only gets a small segment of the American population interested”​ in the risk and consequences of obesity and malnutrition, he told attendees at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit in Washington, DC, this month.

He explained that while these points are “incredibly important and I am passionate about them and you are passionate about them, that is about it. We have to bring in the economic consequences”​ of obesity if we want more stakeholders to step forward and help find a solution.

These consequences including “$1 in $4 in the federal budget spent on Medicare and Medicaid, a huge portion of which goes to diet related illness. $1 in $5 in our economy is spent on insurance. We have greater national security concerns. We have to talk about the economic competitiveness of American businesses that are getting crushed by rising health care costs and premiums,”​ he said.

As such, he added, “we have to bring together the business community, the military, the VA as part of that, insurance companies, along with traditionally more progressive movements. Only by bringing those allies together, can we really make a difference.”

Insuring a fair fight against obesity

Brooks Tingle, the president and CEO at John Hancock Insurance agreed, noting, “we need to think about new ways to collaborate to compound our reach and impact”​ in the fight against obesity.

He acknowledged that even though the insurance industry has a vested interest in Americans living longer, healthier lives, it has been mostly “unfortunately absent from the discussion about creating a healthier America.”

He explained: “For hundreds of years, the life insurance industry has issued policies and said, ‘I hope you live and long, healthy life,’ and then done absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, to help achieve that outcome.”

But John Hancock Insurance is trying to change that through a series of incentives designed to nudge its clients to make healthier decisions, including becoming more physically active and selecting more nutritious food, he said.

For example, the company gives all its clients a Fitbit and based on how many steps they take each day, gives them rewards points that can be used to save money on their insurance and on major brands.

It also offers clients 25% off at the point of sale for healthy food purchases. Recognizing that not everyone understands which options are healthy, the insurer has worked with Walmart to label products that are nutritious and qualify for the discount with a green dot. It also has a partnership with NutriSavings, which is an app that allows clients to scan QR codes on foods to see their nutrition score and whether they qualify for savings, Tingle said.

The company also shares a monthly nutrition newsletter from Tufts University with its clients to help them better understand nutrition, which is a weak spot for most Americans, he said.

Reinforcing the troops

Brigadier General Allyson Solomon, a retired member of the US Air Force, a current member of Mission: Readiness and president of the National Guard Youth Foundation, also agreed that the idea of bringing stakeholders together to fight obesity is key.

With 71% of young adults unable to qualify for service because they are obese, the epidemic has become a national security threat that is motivating the military to team with previously unexpected partners, she said.

She explained at the summit that Mission: Readiness is a program designed to help make young Americas fit for service, and one way it is doing that is by expanding a pilot program in which it places professionally trained chef in school kitchens full time to prepare nutritious meals for students.

The program also is teaming with some school officials so that admirals can visit schools to discuss healthy nutrition with students, she said.

“Teaching young children about nutrition can be the support they need not only for their mental health, but their productivity,”​ and physical health which is “certainly critical for what we care about most in terms of Mission: Readiness, which is obesity is disqualifying young people from the military, which is a national security threat.”

Getting more buy-in from farmers to physicians to legislators

Farmers, physicians and legislators also need to take a more active role in preventing obesity, Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture and vice president of the Aspen Institute, added at the conference.

“The people who actually produce the food ought to be part of this debate, because they are the ones who are responsible for making sure we have adequate access to food,”​ he said.

He also noted that very few medical schools currently teach nutrition and while physicians and healthcare providers are well trained in treating disease, they are not well trained in preventing it.

As for legislators, he said he would like to see them place a greater emphasis on the “‘N’ in SNAP.”

He explained, “Nutrition has been a low priority in many cases,”​ but he would like to see more organization incentivize the purchase of fresh produce and healthy options.

Ultimately, Tingle concluded, the partnerships are necessary because while each group has significant resources and reach, collaboration would help exponentially expand those to achieve greater impact.

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