Want to think of an investment growth theme? How about obesity? Seriously, we are all getting steadily fatter, and the problem offers lots of opportunities to ingenious entrepreneurs.
Why is surplus weight a problem? Well, what do you think is probably the biggest contributor to premature death, disability and unhappiness in the Western world? You might think cigarettes – but you would be wrong. The truth is that obesity is a massive epidemic that makes the fears about Aids in the West look like madness.
The economic cost of obesity and excessive weight runs into billions of pounds – leaving aside the suffering. Not only is it a huge burden on the health service, but millions of days a year are lost from work owing to illnesses arising from excessive weight, and fat workers are likely to be less efficient. Moreover, slim people tend to be happier – they have fewer social and health problems than overweight people.
Surveys have been conducted that ask women what single thing they would change about their lives if they could. The most popular answer is their weight.
Over three-quarters of Americans are overweight – and 80m of them are classified as obese. We are catching this habit from America, like so many others. And as we become a nation of fatties like the Americans, we copy them in our attempts to shed weight as well – by spending money on dieting.
The diet industry is colossal. Amazon.com lists more than 2,000 books on losing weight, while in the US, diet books, videos and audio cassettes sell over $1bn a year. Diet drinks such as Slim-Fast are big business, as are weight-loss centres and multi-level marketing organisations such as Weight Watchers International, Herbalife, Jenny Craig and Nutri/System, Inc.
The pharmaceutical industry sees obesity as a huge source of potential profit. It is busy trying to invent drugs that both suppress appetite and speed up metabolism. Plastic surgeons report that liposuction procedures are booming.
The various slimming systems have failed to penetrate the UK market with the exception of the Weight Watchers programme. In fact research shows that most people who successfully lose weight and keep it off don’t just eat less; they also exercise more. So it seems that in the UK we are being rational by joining gyms and attending aerobics classes to keep in shape – rather than just buying low-calorie meals and attending self-help classes.
There is no doubt that an increasingly sedentary existence helps us put on weight. In previous generations, a majority of the workforce undertook manual labourl; now must of us have white-collar occupations in offices. We drive rather than walk – everything is mechanised. In relative terms food has become steadily cheaper – despite the fact that we eat ever more, spending on food has been falling as a percentage of overall consumer spending.
Unfortunately, the steady disappearance of the family meal means people tend to snack more and eat far more fast food. All of this promotes obesity.
The restaurant and catering industries just add to the general agony; we eat out much more than we used to – and the trend shows no sign of slowing. People eat more when they eat out – and often the food is high in fat; portions are larger than they used to be as everything from sandwiches to burgers is getting bigger – thanks to demand from the public, and competition from other eating places.
There is a slight tendency to consider ruthless honesty about overweight people to be non-PC and “fattist”. But it is important to remember that obesity is “an important chronic, degenerative disease that debilitates individuals and kills prematurely” – according to the National Academy of Sciences. Yet some believe that those who call obesity an epidemic are part of the “fascist, orthodox medical establishment”.
It is curious how intolerant America has become of smoking, yet how little is really done there to encourage sensible eating. A majority of us in the West would be happier if we consumed fewer calories and ate more roughage and fibre. Government and industry should consider the economic benefits of promoting such a lifestyle before we end up with the obesity crisis threatening to overwhelm America.