Playing the Long Game for Better Health – Can the Food Industry and Weight Loss Drugs Help?

Playing the Long Game for Better Health – Can the Food Industry and Weight Loss Drugs Help?

May 17, 2023
Sally Smithwick

By Sally Smithwick, Managing Editor, RDBA Weekly

As a professional working in the health and wellness arena, there is little doubt you haven’t heard about the latest weight loss strategy that has gone viral on social media — currently with over 947 million hashtags #ozempic appearing on TikTok alone. Ozempic is the brand name for the drug semaglutide approved in 2017 by the FDA for treating Type 2 Diabetes. Wegovy is the brand name for a higher dose version that was approved in 2021 for treating weight loss. Both of these drugs are now in high demand for those looking to manage appetite and achieve significant weight loss rapidly.

The obesity crisis for Americans is an alarming public health crisis that currently affects one in three adults and one in six children (NIH) resulting in costly chronic illness challenges for our society. While there are varying opinions and little data yet to support the long term effects of using semaglutide for weight loss, multiple factors from physical health implications to self-esteem are at play compelling Americans to consider these prescriptions.

Ozempic and Wegovy when used for weight loss come at a price tag out of reach for many Americans who find it typically difficult to purchase with insurance coverage unless the patient meets certain criteria. Without insurance coverage, the cost of these drugs averages around $829 per month! However, a growing number of sites online are offering coupons and rebates, and even Weight Watchers has recently jumped into the arena by acquiring Sequence, an online tele-health subscription service that connects patients with doctors who can prescribe these drugs.

While the jury is out on whether or not this is a sustainable and healthy approach to obesity, the trend raises the question of how the food industry is helping to change the trajectory of this epidemic as people continue to desperately search for ways to manage their weight. While medications can potentially have great value in treating some situations of obesity, how are these drugs changing eating habits for long term health?

It’s no secret American palates have become acclimated to crave foods with lower nutritional profiles such as fast food, sugary beverages, sweet snacks, and other ultra-processed foods. In addition, these foods are often less expensive and easier to acquire for financially stressed shoppers and those living in food deserts or areas with little access to affordable quality fresh foods. The challenge for food companies that have committed to solutions is in meeting shoppers where they are by setting attainable goals that shift widespread poor eating habits while also offering accessibility and affordability for healthier options which includes many processed foods that are viable sources of nutrition for average shoppers.

Notable changes by food companies thinking forward are happening in your supermarket aisles, whether it is reducing salt and sugar or fortifying foods to increase their nutritional value. For example, companies like Unilever and Mondelez have made significant additions of whole grains, fiber and iron to their products, a great area of change needed. The USDA recently reported while Americans are moving in the right direction to meeting recommended dietary guidelines for saturated fats, total fats and calcium, we are still lacking in dietary fiber and iron.

Hank Cardello, contributor for Forbes who writes about social and ethical leadership in the food industry, recently wrote an article about the prevalence of obesity drugs versus food industry efforts. Applauding Pepsico’s pledge to make impactful reductions of sugar, sodium and fat in their products by 2025, he calls this approach “Stealth Health – doing the right thing gradually and imperceptibly to consumers, without trumpeting it to the outside world.” By gradually and quietly reducing the ingredients we need less of, the company is betting on consumers not noticing the taste differences as their palates condition to the improvements in products they love, potentially resulting in broader long-term, safe, sustainable changes in healthier eating.

Remember when Kraft Heinz phased out artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from its macaroni and cheese while keeping the reformulation a secret from the public? That was in 2014 when they also reduced saturated fat by 25% and sodium by 100mg. Delaying the reveal of the changes prevented customers loyal to their brand from abandoning the product for concern it wouldn’t taste the same. Without even knowing, they were eating a little better for their health.

As retail dietitians looking for opportunities to build healthier communities, your shoppers can benefit greatly from gradually adopting new ways to shop the supermarket aisles that work for their budgets and time constraints while adjusting their tastes to include more nutrient-rich foods. As we watch these food companies take positive steps to make their products healthier while staying desirable and affordable, there will be much to learn from how “playing the long game” measures up to trending weight loss drugs that for financial reasons alone are not an option for the average American. Or perhaps there’s a future path to solutions that partner proven safe medications and food industry efforts to make even broader changes to the American diet challenges.