by Jennifer Landis
I grew up in a family that didn’t eat breakfast, drank nothing but diet cola, and lived off of the drive thru and Hamburger Helper. As such, I can say that I have seen first hand what obesity does to an individual – as well as to a whole family. The money my parents spent on a combination of fast food and diet pills was astounding and saddening. As I became older and cognizant of their situation I realized that if they weren’t going to do something to change their situation I had to – which is why I studied nutrition and continue to do so today. I’m proud to say that my tenacity helped to save both of my parents from a future filled with endless health issues and medical bills. I hope that sharing the information contained in this piece can do the same for someone else.
America’s obesity epidemic probably ranks among the strangest modern phenomena. Despite the fact that our country wastes about 40 percent of the food we purchase in a given year, we’re currently in 27th place for the dubious honor of “fattest country in the world,” with 35.7 percent of adults qualifying as obese under modern definitions.
All this, despite the fact that we are the once and future richest country in the history of the earth.
In discussions about obesity as a societal problem, it can be easy to overlook the fact that this condition also represents a strain on individuals’ bodies and wallets. Let’s find out how.
Current State of Obesity in America
Before we continue, it makes sense to get on the same page about what, exactly, counts as obesity. For a broad definition, we can refer to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:
Overweight refers to an excess amount of body weight that may come from muscles, bone, fat and water.
Obesity refers to an excess amount of body fat.
A subtle distinction, perhaps, but an important one: Obesity stems from an excess of body fat only, and does not include weight gain attributable to other sources or conditions.
To put it another way, adults aged 20 and over are considered overweight if their Body Mass Index (BMI) is 30 or higher. A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. To find out your own BMI, check out the NIH’s MBI calculator. All you need is your height and weight.
It’s wrong to assume that obesity is an isolated problem. The truth is, obesity can be the first in a long line of dominos, each one a separate and very serious health problem – not to mention monetary expense.
Consider this: Being overweight or obese frequently leads to hypertension, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, certain types of cancer, osteoarthritis and several different forms of heart disease. The full list of potential health complications is a long one, and is required reading for anyone who’s let that freshman 15 get away from them.
Obesity Is More Expensive Than Being Healthy
If you require more motivation to stick to a healthy weight than doctors’ warnings and national rankings, consider this: Remaining obese is a great deal more expensive than getting fit. In other words, both your body and your wallet will thank you for eating healthier.
According to the latest data, obesity is now a greater health care expense in America than smoking. This is a huge reversal, considering the toll Big Tobacco has taken on our collective health over the last few decades. It couldn’t be clearer: With heart disease climbing to the No. 1 spot in the United States’ leading causes of death, conditions related to obesity have officially become our most significant public health concern.
So let’s get into the numbers.
According to Reuters, obesity adds $190 billion onto the country’s annual health care expenditures. On an individual level, that’s a yearly price tag of $1,152 for the average obese man, or $3,615 per year for the average obese woman.
The really crazy thing is that the price tag for obesity goes well beyond health care expenses, and touches just about every aspect of American life. For example, thanks to the added stress on our vehicles, obesity also causes us to waste 1 billion gallons of additional gasoline each year. All told, that’s almost 1 percent of the U.S.’s total annual usage of gas.
Since smoking is an obvious touchstone here, let’s follow through with the comparison. Early mortality among smokers can actually have a positive impact on the nation’s health care expenditures, since smokers who die early cost less in Social Security, Medicare and private pensions – to the tune of trillions of dollars every year.
Obesity, on the other hand, doesn’t have a correspondingly low mortality rate – just a consistently higher price tag.
An Industry in Flux
It’s no secret that health care is going to be one of the most important deciding factors in next year’s presidential election. On one side of the aisle, we’ve got politicians clamoring to tear down the meaningful progress made by the Affordable Care Act. On the other side, we’ve got politicians who want to strengthen what works about the law and toss out what doesn’t, such as the so-called Cadillac Tax on mid- and upper-tier health care plans.
It’s important to note that the ACA ushered in several provisions that could help to reduce obesity’s strain on the nation’s pocketbooks. For example, health care premiums under the new law can be as much as 30 to 50 percent higher for obese employees who refuse to take part in weight loss-focused wellness plans. That makes the ACA not just a moral mandate for health insurance providers, but also a roadmap to success for customers who are struggling with their weight.
At the end of the day, though, obesity is not a problem that will be solved with any single solution. More than anything, it’s going to require awareness on a massive scale – and that starts with each and every one of us.
Jennifer Landis is a health journalist and the editor of MissRX.com and Mindfulness Mama.com. She is passionate about health, wellness, and the human body and loves to dig deep to find the facts on the latest health trends. When she is not writing and editing you will likely find her at home trying to keep up with her toddler, whipping up something healthy in the kitchen, or watching Dr. Who with her husband.