One of the biggest challenges we have as a nation is the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately many of us are not comfortable even talking about it for fear of offending or upsetting someone.
Two out three Americans — that’s almost 69 percent — are overweight, probably every two of three of you reading this. Thus two thirds of our population is suffering from or is at risk for serious obesity-related health consequences. Yet even physicians shy away from discussions of obesity for fear of offending. So it is good to see the recent annual report on the country’s obesity crisis putting it plainly in its title: “F as in Fat.” To quote the report, “If we fail to reverse our nation’s obesity epidemic, the current generation of young people may be the first in American history to live sicker and die younger than their parents’ generation.”
Yes, the obesity epidemic is real. The average American is 24 pounds heavier today than in 1960. Over the same time period, the incidence of obesity-related diseases such as type-2 diabetes has increased dramatically. But along with the personal challenges and suffering due to obesity and related disease conditions come high health care costs that are crippling our nation’s economy. Current estimates are that obesity-related conditions cost the U.S. between $147 and $210 billion per year — that’s approximately one of every 10 U.S. health care dollars.
Who is paying out all this extra money? All of us. We all pay Medicare taxes and health insurance premiums.
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Dominant among obesity-related diseases is type-2 diabetes and diabetes-associated costs account for more than one in five U.S. health care dollars. These costs are expected to continue to grow because the number of Americans with diabetes has more than tripled over the past 20 years, growing from 7.8 million to 25.8 million people, and this number is projected to increase to 40 million over the next 20 years, unless something is done. Individuals with diagnosed diabetes see health care expenses that are approximately 2.3 times higher than expenses for those without diabetes.
Twenty years ago, type-2 diabetes was seen primarily in older people; it is now also impacting our adolescent children. Thus higher health care expenditures can readily be documented for obese children with $194 higher outpatient costs and $114 higher drug costs annually compared to non-obese children, for a total national impact of $14.1 million.
But the costs of obesity go well beyond diabetes. In 2012, the Mayo Clinic found annual medical costs among obese employees to be $1,850 higher, and $5,500 higher for those more than 100 pounds overweight. In contrast, rates for smokers were only $1,274 higher. Beyond health care, transportation economists have estimated that car and jet fuel consumption costs are each $3 to 5 billion higher annually due to average passenger sizes increases since 1960.
So while health care costs are spinning out of control, what can we do? First we need to acknowledge that not everyone can alleviate health problems through weight management, but somewhere around two-thirds of us can. Here is where we need to buy into the adage that “the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem.” It is time for every family and social organization to give up their fear of discussing weight and start discussing how to eat healthier and start moving. We must change our culture back to one that eats less and plays more. Isn’t that simple? Maybe not. But, if we don’t do it for ourselves, we need to do it for our children.