02/17/2014 10:10 EST | Updated 04/19/2014 05:59 EDT

There's No National Wealth Without Public Health

A country's gross domestic product (GDP) has long been the predominant measure for its wealth and standard of living of its citizens. But that's a relatively small element of the entire picture, according to Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestlé, a multinational food and beverage company, the world's largest of its kind. What remains largely neglected are additional important aspects, including the state of public health.

More than any other indicator, the health and well-being of the population should be of interest to us when we talk about the wealth of nations, he writes in a recent Huffington Post blog.

Amounts of healthcare spending alone do not tell us how healthy people are in any given part of the world. It is well known that the United States has by far the highest expenditure per capita worldwide, yet falls dramatically behind in terms of access to healthcare, infant mortality and longevity. Canada, for example, spends about 40 percent less but has a slightly higher average life expectancy. Leading European nations like Germany, France and Switzerland do much better as well - at about half the cost. And even notoriously welfare-oriented Scandinavian countries like Norway, Denmark and Sweden all seem to offer much more bang for the buck.

There can be countless speculations about these discrepancies, but in the end, everyone has to look at the same situation: Despite record-high spending on medical services, people get sicker everywhere in greater numbers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more people die every year from so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer than ever before, and the trends are worsening. Even more tragic is that most of this could be prevented with better diet and lifestyle choices.

One of the reasons why we seem unable to address these issues more effectively is our culture and the policies we have put in place to deal with illnesses as they occur, rather than finding better ways to prevent them from taking hold in the first place, says Bulcke.

"We need to focus on a culture of healthful living and disease prevention," he urges.

"Unfortunately, we have a tendency to value our health only after we've lost it. This position has to change. We have to protect and improve our public health. [...] That means that healthcare systems must be developed further in terms of prevention and improvement of health standards. This is what we must concentrate on."

As the CEO of a leading food manufacturing company, Bulcke sees a clear mandate for his industry to contribute more forcefully to the creation of health-promoting environments through education and, if necessary, sensible regulation.

Consumers must also take responsibility to lead healthy lives as best as they can. But industry and government should support those efforts and not hinder or inhibit them by remaining on the sidelines.

"There cannot be any healthy industry within an unhealthy society," he writes. Both are interdependent, and progress will only be made if all parties work together for the common good.

Amen to that.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson, R.D.


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