THE BLOG

Obesity: The World's Domestic Dilemma

07/16/2010 05:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I had the great privilege and opportunity to attend the 11th International Congress on Obesity (ICO) in Stockholm, Sweden this week. Held every four years, the ICO assembles approximately 3,000 international experts and opinion leaders representing all facets of the obesity community, including medical doctors, scientists, policy makers, private industry and advocacy groups. The goal of the 5-day meeting is to establish a forum in which all stakeholders can share information on cutting edge research, innovative preventive and treatment strategies, and forge international relationships and alliances that will help mitigate obesity and its related chronic conditions and diseases. The expectation, ultimately, is to ensure that all are working together to move the needle closer toward effective, sustainable and scalable solutions.

With an estimated 1.6 billion obese or overweight people in the world, it is not surprising that the burden of solving the obesity crisis was palpable throughout the week's activities. Health care systems around the world -- whether public, private or a combination -- are under enormous pressure to address the obesity epidemic with fewer and fewer resources and greater and greater demand. In Europe, the European Commission estimates that obesity accounts for 7% of the region's total healthcare costs, in addition to the broader economic costs as a result of lower worker productivity and lost output. In the United States, the picture is equally grim. Individuals in the U.S. will spend an estimated $344 billion in obesity-related health care costs in 2018, and medical costs for an obese person are 42% higher than for a person of normal weight.

These trends are simply unsustainable, from both a cost perspective as well as a quality of life perspective. Consider that in South East Asia about 11% of men and 12% of women in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City have undiagnosed type 2 diabetes, which can lead to heart disease, vision loss and kidney failures. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, there are approximately 112,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone that are attributed to conditions related to preventable obesity.

At the ICO, I participated in a symposium in which the initial results of a new global weight loss efficacy study were presented by Dr. Susan Jebb, Head of Nutrition and Health Research at the Medical Research Council (MRC) -- the UK's leading research body -- in Cambridge. She, along with independent investigators from the Technische University in Munich and the University of Sydney, showed that combining physician identification and referral with the resources of a scientifically proven and tested weight management program can result in significant reductions in obesity. In fact, 61% of the study participants who were assigned to and completed the weight management program lost at least 5% of their weight -- the amount shown to lead to medical benefits. Previous research found that a 5% reduction in weight would translate to a 20% reduction for diabetes and a 5% reduction for other BMI related diseases, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, arthritis and hypertension.

England's National Health Service is aggressively evaluating ways to improve health outcomes for its citizens while achieving considerable savings for the government and society. Health agencies and public and private organizations in the U.S. and other nations would benefit by studying the United Kingdom's approach and the significant advantages it could offer their own citizens.

There are many viable approaches for addressing the obesity crisis, from increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in urban food deserts, to ensuring children have safe places to play, to reducing barriers to services and programs that empower people with the tools necessary to achieve and sustain a healthy lifestyle. Similarly, drawing on the effectiveness of a partnership between public health, medical and community organizations as well as private enterprise to prevent the progression of weight gain and reduce the need for expensive and burdensome sick care could go a long way toward managing and eventually eradicating obesity in communities the world over.

Many issues carry with them the gravity and significance for convening the world's collective resources. The current obesity crisis is one of those critical issues that will test our global community's strength and ability to rise to the occasion for a unified outcome. Attending this week's ICO underscored how fortunate we are to have the ambition and drive necessary to not only address obesity, but to ultimately realize its final demise.

David Kirchhoff is CEO of Weight Watchers, Inc.