The World of Fat

At a time when the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization are warning that nearly a billion people are starving, countries across the world are awakening to the fact that far too many of their people are too fat.

That has spawned industries that seek to help people restore or/and maintain normal weight, according to a new report by the Seoul-based Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI). The industries, according to the report, fall into two categories: management of body weight and anti-obesity products and related products.

The related products include the changes in clothing and furniture related industries due to change in body size and shape, according to the report, titled “Obesity: Socioeconomic Risks and Opportunities,” and written by research fellow Lee Seung-chul.

It doesn’t appear that diet is necessarily the answer, the SERI report says, pointing out there are estimated to be 26,000 diet plans out there today, most of them developed more than a century ago, between 1900 and 1925 “but most of them reportedly have failed within two years of implementation.”

Nor does there appear to be any other easy solution, according to the report. Instead, it will require “integrated solutions for overall mental and physical health,” going beyond obesity, and in many cases lasting a lifetime. Curing obesity demanding management on an integrated and long-term basis, the report says, with comprehensive programs that identify an individual's awareness of obesity and prevention and providing methods for management.

Prevention is particularly crucial for managing and elimination of obesity since the disease has high recurrence rate, the so-called "yo-yo effect" that results from dieting and then giving it up, the report says, and as just about everybody who has ever gone on a diet has learned.

The fattest country among the 32-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as has been printed far and wide, is the United States, with the average American with a body mass index of 25 or more. Some 35.7 percent of American adults aged 20 or over are considered to be obese. However, the rest of the world isn’t far behind. By 2015, 23.4% of the world population will be obese, with the numbers of obese people swelling by 50 percent over the next 10 years, the WHO forecasts. Already, an estimated 17 million people worldwide are suffering annually from heart disease due to overweight and obesity.

Anti-obesity Industry Development

The anti-obesity drug market in the US, Japan and Europe grew by US$51.9 million between 2004 and 2008 to reach US$513.7 million and is projected to expand considerably in the next few years to reach US$10.5 billion in 2018, SERI forecasts.

The growth of the anti-obesity industry is offering companies new business opportunities as well as a chance to enhance employee welfare services through obesity management, which can ultimately lead to boosting corporate competitiveness, the report notes.

Advanced companies have employee obesity management and diet support in their corporate welfare programs. Many companies offer both incentives and penalties. In the US, 62 percent of its employers provide US$50-$1,400 a year per individual for weight reduction, quitting smoking, exercise and health check-ups. Some employers have also developed wellness programs that cut insurance premiums for employees who stay healthy and fit. At the same time, 19 percent of 248 major companies in the US impose penalties to employees who are obese or smoke, a two-fold increase in the past two years, the report continues.

With safety concerns about anti-obesity drugs emerging and the well-being trend with focus on exercise and healthier diets spreading, anti-obesity industry for healthy lifestyles is also growing. Sales of diet and dietary supplement foods in the US are projected to grow to US$77 billion in 2013, up from US$54 billion in 2006.

The diet-related market is also growing in Korea in line with rising interest on health and beauty, estimated to have topped KRW3 trillion (US$2.68 billion) alone in 2010. Such interest is partially related to strong overweight consciousness, or many people thinking they are overweight regardless of the medical definition of obesity. Ninety-five percent of Korean women think they are fat, while their weight-loss efforts are known to be one of the most intense in the world.

Development of Anti-Obesity Industry

Understanding the causes and types of obesity is essential to the growth of the anti-obesity industry. The fundamental cause of obesity is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and expended, the report says. But the energy imbalance results from influences and interactions of a number of factors over a long period of time, including changes to the economic, social and physical environments. It is the interactions among these factors -- rather than any single factor -- that is thought to cause obesity.

There are also various types of obesity which are determined by causes, time of occurrence, adipose tissue composition and fat distribution: visceral fat obesity, subcutaneous fat obesity, upper body obesity and lower body obesity, etc.

Given the complexity and multiplicity of the forces driving the obesity epidemic, the report continues, treatment requires the establishment of reasonable targets and comprehensive, preventive and long-term management. Short-term and fragmentary prescriptions have proven to have little positive impact.

Against this backdrop, the anti-obesity industry is expected to develop toward tailored weight management, preventive management and integrated and long-term management.

Tailored weight management refers to identifying each person's individual genetic predisposition and body type as well as social and economic environment factors, to offer an ideal and healthy weight range to each individual while prescribing him or her with medical devices, food and exercise programs.

The criteria for judging obesity for each individual, obesity awareness of each person and symptoms are different according to age and gender, demanding a customized weight management, the report notes. For example, for people aged 64 and over, men should be slightly overweight while women need to maintain normal weight range. For young women and working people too, many of whom are so-called "skinny fat," tailored programs for each cause will be needed.

Along with medical service industry's business model pursuing specialization on each sector, the number of obesity clinics is also expanding, which lends support to the increasing need for tailored weight management.

The report describes preventive obesity management as offering constant education for obesity prevention to people by connecting them via network with obesity service specialists (obesity clinics, etc.) or offering them customary visits by these specialists. This is crucial especially considering high social costs to obesity treatment as well as high recurrence rate.

“The importance of preventing chronic health problems like obesity is growing along with the recent shift in healthcare paradigm from diagnosis and treatment to preventive management,” the report notes. The Korean government has become aware of the obesity problem despite the fact that the country’s citizens are considerably skinnier than those of most other OECD countries. However, the 2012 budget includes more spending on preventive healthcare management, and “preventive obesity management will likely be promoted along this government initiative,” the report notes.

The causes of obesity are various while social, economic, cultural and physical environments will continue to change, meaning obesity should be managed lifetime. Fortunately, the development of U-healthcare has made possible healthcare regardless of time and space, paving a road for a long-term management.

Companies not only can advance into obesity management, but can also make inroads into new industries such as clothing and furniture that fit into wellness, anti-aging, stress and body type changes. To meet various obesity management needs for various ages, genders and jobs, companies are developing health-oriented products converging bio, medical and well-being home electronics technologies. For instance, Japan's Sharp Corporation has developed an oven that bathes food in a spray of superheated steam to provide low-calorie cooking as well as removing excess fat and salt from foods.