The cost of being obese in South Africa, according to Discovery

 ·1 Feb 2020

Discovery is using behavioural economics to help ‘nudge’ people into better habits – including eating better and spending less.

The group said that its research shows that dietary risk factors and physical inactivity are responsible for the majority of global disease – nearly double the number of deaths caused by tobacco and four times the number caused by abuse of alcohol and drugs.

In South Africa alone, half of all South African adults are overweight or obese, which in most cases, is the outcome of poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle, it said.

It added that being obese increases healthcare costs by as much as R4,400 a year for each person – a hefty added burden on the cost of healthcare nationally.

“We tend to blame the lack of willpower when we fail to stick to a new healthy eating plan or exercise routine. But often, our irrational beliefs – called behavioural biases – are the cause of our perceived failure to make healthy choices stick.

“And most of the time, we’re completely unaware of these biases and how they influence our decision-making,” said Vitality CEO, Dinesh Govender.

He adds that attaining wellness is tougher because people tend to be overly-optimistic about their health status.

“It also doesn’t help that the positive spin-offs of healthy choices are often only evident in the future, making it easier to give in to instant gratification.”


The solution, says Govender, lies in ‘nudging’ – a term from a book by behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

“Nowadays, nudging is widely seen as an effective way to persuade people to make better decisions, and no company has mastered this better than Vitality – the largest science-based wellness programme in the world.

“With more than ten million members in 22 countries, Vitality has shown that nudging helps its members to live healthier and more active lives,” said Govender.

Govender said that Vitality has various programmes that encourage members towards positive behaviour, and regularly commissions large, science-based studies to measure the impact of its programmes. These include:

  • The Apple Watch Study: In the world’s biggest study on physical activity, RAND Europe investigated if the Vitality Active Rewards with Apple Watch benefit leads to higher physical activity levels than the initial Vitality Active Rewards incentive. Participants of the Vitality Active Rewards with Apple Watch benefit increased their activity levels by 34% and sustained it over the long term. The increased activity amounted to 4.8 extra days of activity each month across the whole spectrum of participants, regardless of gender, age and health status.
  • The HealthyFood study: Based on Vitality’s HealthyFood benefit, the US-based policy research programme Rand Corporation explored whether lowering the cost of healthy foods in supermarkets would motivate shoppers to buy more healthy food items and less unhealthy ones, like sugary snacks and drinks. A discount of 25% on certain healthy foods led to a 9.3% increase in the buying of healthy foods. It also increased the ratio of fruit and vegetables to total food purchases by 8.5%, and lowered the purchase of not-so-healthy items by 7.2%.
  • The Vitality ObeCity Index: The 2017 Vitality ObeCity Index explored important factors in combating obesity, particularly within a South African context.Vitality showed that subsidising healthy eating with financial and other rewards encouraged healthier food purchases, which positively lowered the body fat percentage of members.

Read: Why it seems like it’s not so easy to get a free smoothie with Discovery’s new rewards system

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