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Five Things Businesses Could Do to Fight Obesity

Private industry pays for workers' excess weight in higher health-care costs. Here's what companies could do to help prevent it.

Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, putting them at increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. It’s a public health problem too big for the public health system to solve. Increasingly, businesses are asking what they can do to fight obesity among their employees, customers, and communities. It was the subject of an April 12 meeting at the National Academy of Sciences. After all, employers pay for obesity in their health-care costs, so they should have some incentive to figure out solutions.

Here are five things companies can do to combat obesity.

1. Fix the food in the workplace

A year ago, you could walk into the Cleveland Clinic and eat at McDonald’s. The Clinic shuttered the fast-food chain's location in its food court last fall, one of 52 changes the hospital system has made in recent years to make healthy food more readily available. It has removed deep-fryers from cafeterias and kitchens, banished sugary beverages, and made it easier to buy bottled water, said Michael Roizen, the health system’s chief wellness officer.

From the snack pantries at startups to vending machines in blue-collar break rooms, there are plenty of places where companies can improve the food choices for workers. At the Cleveland Clinic, employees can still drink soda if they want to, but "you’ve got to bring it from home,” Roizen said.

2. Help employees meet their goals

Businesses have eagerly adopted wellness programs in recent years, using both carrots and sticks to prod workers into healthy behavior. Some companies are beginning to make these programs more “employee- and family-centric,” says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of workforce well-being, productivity, and human capital at the National Business Group on Health. That means focusing less on physical health risks and more on supporting employees' own goals—including dealing with stress, emotional and social problems, and financial insecurity. Heinen said these need to be addressed before employers can hope to see the health gains from wellness programs. “If you’re having trouble paying the bills, you’re not buying organic blueberries,” she said.

3. Make it easy for customers to eat well

Retailers put candy near cash registers so people buy it on impulse. Instead, they could remake stores with healthy choices in mind. Some grocery stores have already done this with such rating systems as Guiding Stars or NuVal. They evaluate foods on nutritional value and translate it into a simple rating that stores add to labels on the shelves to help shoppers quickly identify the most nourishing foods. “You’re in the store, looking at all the rows of spaghetti sauce,” said Heinen. “You can just cruise through and grab one off there.”

4. Consider the community

Employers seeking to improve health can extend their influence beyond their workforce and customer base. Companies that have health clinics, child care services, or fitness centers on site can open them to members of the community. Texas Instruments turns company fitness facilities into camps for children during school holidays, said Heinen. Employees' children get first priority, but others can join, too.

5. Change the food supply

Ten years ago, the beverage industry and public health advocates negotiated an agreement to remove full-calorie sodas from vending machines in schools. It was a breakthrough deal. “It transformed the entire landscape of what kids had access to during the school day,” said Victoria K. Brown, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The agreement also paved the way for later pledges to reformulate products to reduce portion sizes and calories—a trend that was already under way, driven by consumers’ behavior. Ultimately, market pressure may be the most effective way to get the food industry to address obesity. "From the private sector, they know they need to make changes,” Brown said. “There is a moral imperative, but there is also increasingly a financial imperative."

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