Good health is important to individuals, to communities and to the economy. On a personal level it enables us to live independent and fulfilling lives. Economically speaking, it enables us to productively contribute to the global economy without the handicap of sickness.

What’s the best way to ensure a good quality of health? The maxim 'You are what you eat' offers a neat encapsulation; if people eat nutritious foods, they are more likely to be fit and healthy. Take a walk through most supermarkets, however, and it quickly becomes evident that eating well is often harder than eating badly. Many of the cheapest, best advertised foods are highly processed and possess high amounts of salt or sugar, along with hard-to-pronounce preservatives. In contrast, fresh produce or more nutritious food alternatives are typically more expensive and much harder to source.

Promoting healthier eating behavior would invariably help more individuals to stay healthy, which would give them a broader array of work and leisure options. That, in turn, would require less resource allocation to health and treatment. In other words, healthy diets and lifestyles make for healthier populations, which in turn make for healthier economies.

Nutrition and health

A systematic assessment across 195 countries concluded that a poor diet is linked to 22 percent of all deaths, which accounts for more deaths globally than tobacco, cancer, hypertension or any other medical condition or health risk.1

The benefits of good health are valuable to the global economy. According to McKinsey,2 the widespread adoption of healthy lifestyles could add USD 12 trillion to global GDP by 2040, representing 0.4% faster growth every year between now and then.

Conversely, a population with a high prevalence of poor health due to substandard nutrition can hurt a nation’s economic growth. It can result in reduced workforce participation, increased dependency on social safety nets, and lower overall productivity. In 2008, the UK government-commissioned review ’Working for a Healthier Tomorrow’ suggested the cost of poor health to the country’s employers and taxpayers ran to GBP 100 billion per year. According to the CBI’s ‘Seize the Moment’ report,3 63 percent of the years lost to poor health take place among the working age population. This costs the UK around GBP 300 billion in lost economic output annually, excluding direct health costs.

The quickest and surest means to ensure the population enjoys a proficient level of health is for them to have a nutritious diet. The right balance of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats allow people to receive sufficient energy, maintain their well-being, and better resist illness throughout their lives. For example, a diet low in highly processed saturated fats and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.4

Emerging research also suggests a connection between good nutrition and improved mental health. Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and certain vitamins may play a role in mood regulation and reducing the risk of mental health disorders like depression.5

The costs of bad nutrition

Malnutrition has just the opposite effect. It refers to an improper balance between a person’s nutrient intake and energy expenditure. Malnourished people are more prone to illness, more likely to lack energy, and have an increased possibility of an early death. Undernutrition and obesity are both forms of malnutrition, and each is associated with health problems that range from serious to life-threatening (including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and joint issues).

Hundreds of millions of people across the world suffer from forms of malnutrition, and the numbers are rising. According to research, almost one in 10 people in the world do not get enough to eat,6  while the World Health Organization has noted that worldwide obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016 more than 1.9 billion adults were diagnosed as being overweight, over 650 million of whom were obese. Overweight and obesity are linked to more deaths worldwide than underweight. Globally there are more people who are obese than underweight—this occurs in every region except parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.7

Worldwide, malnutrition costs USD 3.5 trillion annually, with overweight- and obesity-related noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, cost an additional USD 2 trillion—which is greater than the GDP of all but 10 countries. Malnutrition also robs countries of precious human capital, the foundation of economic development and resilience.8 When individuals experience poor health, they may need to take sick days, medical leave, or reduce their working hours. This leads to a loss of income and productivity for both the affected individuals and their employers.

Poor health can also exacerbate economic inequality. Individuals with limited access to healthcare and resources are more likely to experience poor health, which in turn can negatively affect their productivity and careers. Plus, societies that are forced to spend more on caring for the long-term medical consequences of bad nutrition cannot use those resources in other areas, and they lose the benefits of the full labor of these sick people.

Unfortunately, we also observe the food desert phenomenon in the US. These are places where economics and geography make it harder for people to access healthy and nutritious food, which contributes to greater inequality. It is important to note that the economic impacts of poor health are multifaceted and can vary, depending on factors such as the severity of the health condition, access to healthcare, and government policies.

Encouraging better eating

Given the economic costs of malnutrition, it is in the interests of all nations to try to encourage their citizens to eat more healthily. However, attempts to do so will inevitably veer into the thorny subject of personal freedom versus government policy, and incentives versus disincentives.

Cheap and unhealthy foods have managed to proliferate in large part because they can be produced cheaply, stored for longer, and their unhealthy ingredients are often very tasty. In addition, companies often use advertising to promote less nutritious foods, some of which have attained cultural status as a result. In contrast, many people believe that healthy meals are time-consuming to prepare, costly and may not taste particularly good. These inbuilt social perceptions will not be easy to unpick.

However, the concept of precision nutrition has been gaining ground in some parts of the world. This approach to nutrition is based on the principle that different people require different diets to optimize their health. A combination of DNA testing, food sensitivity tests and blood glucose monitoring, to name a few steps, can give people tailored recommendations on how to improve their nutrition and health. Unfortunately, such services are available to an exceedingly small part of the world’s population, both because of a lack of availability and demand.

Encouraging healthier eating habits across economies will require a coordinated effort. Governments would need to work with private organizations to improve education standards about the benefits of healthier forms of food ingredients and food preparation—and the dangers of poor eating. Plus, governments may need to cooperate closely with food distributors to ensure as many people as possible have access to nutritious, affordable food, along with the means to cook simple, healthy meals. This may require forms of subsidization, where appropriate.

Simultaneously, governments and their regulatory bodies may well need to take measures to make unhealthy foods and beverages more costly. This could include forms of ‘sugar tax’, plus more stringent measures on how much sugar, fats and preservatives are allowed into several types of food and drinks. It could also include mandatory warning labels (like those imposed upon tobacco companies) that highlight the risks from certain ingredients. Other possibilities include working with insurers to reward healthier diets and raise premiums on unhealthy ones, plus restricting the use of advertising for manifestly unhealthy foodstuffs. While likely to be controversial—and certain to be challenged by some—such measures will be essential to helping improve public health.

Investors could play a role in this too. They could engage with food-related companies to encourage them to offer healthier products and services. In addition, investors can allocate assets towards themes that shape the trend towards healthy living. These may include adopting a value chain approach thinking to encouraging healthy nutrition, healthy lifestyles, mental wellbeing, longevity, disease prevention, and consumerization of health. Eating healthily may seem like challenging work, particularly when set against the appealing advertising that surrounds junk food. But encouraging more people to do so is important to ensure the long-term health of individuals and economies alike.

Countries that can convince more of their people to take nutritious eating seriously stand to benefit over the long term as their citizens become healthier, more energetic, and more productive. Those that do not can only look forward to mounting health costs and less productivity.

Themes shaping the healthy living megatrend

Healthy Lifestyle

Products, services and technology solutions designed to promote healthy lifestyles through increased physical activity and greater social engagement.

Healthy Nutrition

Healthy alternatives to the traditional, highly processed foods that have come to define the Western Diet to support the consumption of balanced diets as well as obesity treatments.

Consumerization of Health

Making the healthcare system more convenient for individuals, allowing them to take greater control of their healthcare decisions and seek preventive treatment earlier as opposed to relying on acute/urgent care.

Disease Prevention

Diagnostics and treatments reducing the threat of chronic diseases (obesity, respiratory, cardiovascular) and emerging threats (viruses) through preventative treatment & diagnostic screening/ testing.

Mental Well-Being

Chronic stress and lack of social engagement is driving an epidemic of mental and substance abuse disorders, driving demand for counselling as well as pharmacologic and alternative treatments.


Longer lives drive the demand for treatments to a wide range of age-related diseases including neuro-degenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s), ophthalmic diseases (cataracts) as well as hearing loss.

The author is grateful for feedback from: Christina Tsiligianni, Matthew Konosky, Mike Ryan, Jackie Bauer.

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