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Michael Segal: Enlisting Technology to Fight Obesity

 

Introduction

Obesity has recently reached pandemic proportions. As Reuters reported earlier this year, “The percentage of Americans who are obese (with a BMI of 30 or higher) has tripled since 1960, to 34 percent, while the incidence of extreme or “morbid” obesity (BMI above 40) has risen sixfold, to 6 percent.” According to the CDC, major health consequences related to obesity include coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, hypertension (high blood pressure) and more. The estimated toll of obesity on the U.S. economy has been estimated to be $190 billion. What is especially troublesome is child obesity. Although there is a substantial consensus across the board in the media and the political world regarding the magnitude of the problem, the solution to the problem remains elusive.

This post explores alternative approaches and methods for fighting obesity and highlights the role social tools and technology can play in this battle.

Government Legislation

For example, “The U.S. health care reform law of 2010 allows employers to charge obese workers 30 percent to 50 percent more for health insurance if they decline to participate in a qualified wellness program,” according to the same Reuters report.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg wants to ban selling sodas and other sugary drinks in servings larger than 16 ounces, convinced doing so is a “way to fight obesity in a city that spends billions of dollars a year on weight-related health problems.”

The key difference between the two initiatives is that while the Obamacare provision is based on statistically proven correlation between obesity and costly weight-related heath prices, Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative seems to have no such correlation. As such, it may penalize a portion of the public that is not obese and chooses to drink larger cups of soda.

Corporate Role

While food processing offers many benefits such as food preservation, financial savings (because it is much cheaper to mass-produce food), and time savings (by reducing the amount of time families spend cooking), it is also the source of the many unhealthy food products on the market today.

This is exactly where corporate responsibility can be demonstrated by major corporate entities that have the power to influence food manufacturers to produce healthier processed foods.

A good example of this type of corporate responsibility has been displayed recently by The Walt Disney Company, which recently announced that “all products advertised on its child-focused television channels, radio stations and web sites” must meet a certain nutritional standard.

Education

Education — especially at a young age — can provide children, and later adults, lifelong tools to eat more healthily. Michelle Obama launched her own campaign against child obesity back in 2010 by encouraging more physical activity and starting an organic White House garden. Since then, she has served as a role model to promote a healthy lifestyle.

Another great role model in the area of healthy nutrition is Chef Jamie Oliver, who was awarded the prestigious TED Prize for creating “a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”

Personal Responsibility

Personal responsibility starts with each one of us that makes a decision to fight family obesity. As part of personal responsibility, we are expected to develop healthy living habits, starting with the selection of healthy food items. Just imagine the positive impact that exercising personal responsibility on a massive scale would have on healthy nutrition. After all, if everyone would only buy healthy products, then companies would stop manufacturing unhealthy products, as there would be no demand for them. The primary challenge with exercising personal responsibility, however, is that successful execution of this commitment is contingent upon consumers’ ability to analyze information on healthy nutrition and select the healthiest products.

With more than tens of thousands of products on average in a typical supermarket, this can be a daunting task. This is where web and mobile technology helps.

Technology to the Rescue

Instead of consumers researching the nutrients and ingredients of each and every product, a nutritional algorithm running on a computer can do it for them. This algorithm, developed by experts based on scientific nutritional research, can analyze a database of food items’ nutrients and ingredients, and recommend healthy options. This algorithm can run on mobile devices and enable consumers to select healthier products in real time.

Several companies have developed algorithms that can guide consumers to make healthy food choices, including Fooducate, ShopWell and wHealthy Solutions. The services offered by these companies also provide information regarding healthier alternatives, and educate consumers on various topics relating to healthy nutrition. For consumers who don’t have access to computers or smartphones, NuVal compresses the data per label into a single number that is presented at the grocery stores on the shelf tag.

While expert rankings are very valuable, in this day and age of social networks, consumers expect to get more than just numbers from the experts. They want to participate in and contribute to the review process to collectively benefit from the wisdom of the user community. Combining expert rankings with communal wisdom has been used quite effectively in a variety of social platforms in other fields such as TripAdvisor, Yahoo Movies, etc. wHealthy Solutions’ FoodSmart is one such social app that enables users to rank “taste” and write their reviews on food items, where they can then be combined with expert rankings.

Conclusion

There is no single silver bullet in fighting obesity. Government legislation, corporate responsibility, education and personal responsibility, combined with web and mobile services, can all help people eat healthy and fight obesity. People who reach a decision to exercise their personal responsibility and develop healthy eating habits for themselves and their families are encouraged to use the web and mobile services to help with planning and shopping for healthy food items. These individuals can also help other families fight obesity by contributing to development of the communal wisdom by writing their product reviews on social platforms.

For more by Michael Segal, click here.

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