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How Much Does Obesity Cost?

Here, from the Weight of the Nation conference underway today in D.C., is new fodder for the debate as to whether being obese really compromises one's health: A study published online today estimates the cost of treating obesity-related ailments in 2008 at $147 billion.

The study, which compared medical costs for normal-weight people to those for obese people, suggests that curbing the obesity epidemic is key not only to ensuring a healthier future for Americans, but also to reining in health costs.

To that end, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- which helped conduct the study -- has developed a program to address obesity on a community level. Key initiatives include encouraging communities to build schools within walking distance of students' homes and making it easier for people to get access to healthful foods. The whole program's spelled out here.

Your thoughts?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 27, 2009; 12:28 PM ET
Categories:  Health Policy , Obesity  
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There is a mixture of good news and potential trouble in this issue. The good news is that when all is said and done, we have a measure of control over our weight. I realize it is far easier said than done, and do not dismiss the challenges--physical, emotional, and even spiritual--inherent in such a simple "truth." Cultures are changeable. After decades of being the most heart-attack prone country in the world, Finland has changed its ways and the ethos of exercise, healthy eating, and responsibility, is firmly established.

So what's the challenge? We are engaged in a huge debate over the costs of medical care. It doesn't take much for an expensive case to become a "problem" and for the problem to become unwelcome. Fifty-three years ago I was diagnosed as a Type One diabetic. I did nothing to cause that. It made my life an expensive proposition. I am quite sure that if I died tomorrow afternoon, the insurance company would celebrate.

And so . . . we must do all we can to control all we can . . . without forgetting or banishing those whose conditions are also part of life.

Posted by: Praytell1 | July 27, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

It's good to see how much a particular health issue costs the public, but is important not to stray into the "who gets covered" category.

Will Americans eat less and exercise more if they know that their Type II diabetes, kidney failure, or other obesity-linked condition won't be covered by health care or Medicare? It seems unlikely - otherwise, they make the same changes simply to avoid those conditions (who REALLY wants to be on dialysis?).

So, knowing the total cost is useful to get the attention of the public, and might convince taxpayers that it's cost-effective to use tax dollars to try to prevent obesity. But then what? The real question now is "How do we use those tax dollars to prevent obesity?"

Can we pay people to do 60 minutes of cardio per day (how do they prove it?)? Subsidies for whole foods and taxes on prepared foods? Government-sponsored "anti-fast-food" chains that sell healthy food in normal portions for less than Jerry's $5 sub? Community kitchens where you go and learn to prepare healthy food and take home your prepared dinners, again for the price of fast food?

I hope some of these topics are being discussed at the conference.

Posted by: drmary | July 27, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

All other big countrys do not allow "high futrous corn syrup".
Its is as bad as trans fats!!!
That crap is whats causing our fat.
Our bodies cannot break it down!
sugar and splenda will stop obesity
Please Congress stop allow all the companies to use that crap!

Posted by: ok4u | July 27, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I read CDC's program to reduce obesity - it's worth the time, even though it is long. However, I'm not sure about some of the suggestions.

For example, requiring/encouraging schools to have daily PE: most public schools are cutting back on PE to make room for NCLB programs. Longer school days might help here, but that's a hard sell.

Another suggestion was to make public areas for physical recreation more available: by itself, I doubt this will work. In Montgomery County, we have a wonderful system of hiker/biker trails. Our family often has an entire 1-hour walk to ourselves, meeting no one on these trails. The facilities can be there, but without incentive programs and public awareness, they won't be used.

A great suggestion in the program is to make healthy food more available to inner city locations - this is a major problem, as anyone who has tried to shop for food in DC can attest. Another good one is to reduce unhealthy food in schools and make healthy choices more affordable. In my daughter's high school cafeteria, the most cost-effective way to get filled up is "taco salad" - a cup of greasy hamburg in sauce on some bits of iceberg lettuce, topped by processed cheese sauce. A guilty pleasure (I treated myself to one per month) but not something kids should eat every day.

Posted by: drmary | July 27, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

How can America reduce the $147 billion spent each year “treating the diseases that obesity promotes”?

* More bariatric surgeries?
* Modify the current taxes/subsidies applied to food production/distribution?
* Mandatory P.E. in all schools?
* Community fitness initiatives?
* Massive PR campaign designed to shame the lazy & praise the physically fit
* Tax breaks for Pharma research into obesity treatments
* Mandatory military bootcamps
Amphetamines added to the water supply (sorry, Coca-Cola supply is more appropriate)

Posted by: synergymindandbody | July 27, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm a little surprised there's not much more discussion going on - is $147 billion that small an amount? Is obesity that sensitive a topic? Do people feel it's been discussed too much?

Perhaps people feel that national obesity is "not my problem." I'd rather it not be my problem either, but I'd like to see that money used for something else. On the human side, I'd like to think people are not suffering from chronic diseases that could have been prevented.

Does that figure include the $ lost in productivity? What would our nation be like if we were all more healthy?

And lastly, how dependent is our economy on the foods and activities that caused the obesity epidemic? Can we survive if the fast food industry is cut back by 50%? If FritoLay goes under, will it take us with it? Can we afford to have people buy fewer plasma TVs and game stations?

Posted by: drmary | July 27, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

For children in K-12, have the first 45 minutes of the day a physical activity period. It does not have to be "gym" class. Teachers could lead students in exercises. Classes of children could walk around the track. Yoga, whatever. Phys ed is lacking in many places, and even when it's available, the actual movement involved in a typical period is very little.

Posted by: readerny | July 27, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

readerny wrote:
For children in K-12, have the first 45 minutes of the day a physical activity period. It does not have to be "gym" class. Teachers could lead students in exercises. Classes of children could walk around the track. Yoga, whatever.
Obviously spoken by someone who has never had to spend time in a warm classroom with 9th grade boys after gym class!

Posted by: highschoolteacher | July 27, 2009 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Twinkie Tax! If we tax the heck out processed foods and make whole foods less expensive people will start making better choices. High taxes on cigarettes curbed a lot of smoking. As it is now poor people can get full by using cheap processed foods. In other words, you pay $3.00 for a pint of blueberries and a $2.00 for a big bag of potato chips. Pepsi is a lot cheaper than fruit juice or even bottled water for that matter. Subsidize organic farms and tax polluting Big Agra as well. Put a cancer tax on pesticides. Put an obesity tax on sodas, baked goods(not whole wheat) and candy.
Most of all put a tax on sugar and fat.

Posted by: Dipsy1 | July 27, 2009 8:47 PM | Report abuse

The obesity epidemic is caused by 2 factors: what people put in their mouth and inactivity/lack of exercise!
There are so many healthy, organic, all-natural snacks and food products available that are affordable and good for you- not laden with the preservatives, fats and chemicals that are making people overweight! Check out
there are great brands available such as Annie's Homegrown foods and Eden's Foods...

And right now, if you make a $50 purchase you will receive a free year's subscription to Health magazine...just type in promo code WD97HMAG at the checkout counter

Posted by: jensolley | July 28, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Of course, "eating healthier foods" will make a difference. But before we start that mantra, we need to be clear on what "healthier foods" are.

There is now substantial evidence supporting the close connection between consuming animal products (especially meat and dairy) and developing certain cancers. In particular, breast and prostate cancer have been positively linked to consumption of dairy. At the same time, meat consumption has been found to be a significant causitive factor in both stroke and heart attack, neither of which are the exclusive province of obese people. In fact, people who are considered conventionally fit are being found to have more predisposing factors for stroke, heart attack, and a growing variety of cancers than unfit, obese people who do not consume meat or dairy.

It behooves us to begin looking -- sooner rather than later -- at these studies and understanding what they're telling us about the standard American diet. A good place to start is the article at

As long as we continue harping on obese people consuming junk food as the country's biggest health challenge, we will miss the data right under our noses which demonstrates that "normal"-weight people consuming meat and dairy are a much bigger drain on our health-care resources because they're the ones developing the "expensive" diseases: atherosclerosis, leading to coronary disease, heart attack, and stroke, and a variety of cancers.

Please, let's get realistic about our nation's health. No, we don't need the Twinkies, chips, and cokes. But neither do we need the beef, pork, chicken, milk, and cheese. The latter do much more harm than the former.

Posted by: kjohnson3 | July 28, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

kjohnson3 wrote: "Of course, "eating healthier foods" will make a difference. But before we start that mantra, we need to be clear on what "healthier foods" are."

This may be the biggest stumbling block to improving the American diet - if you look hard enough, you will find a study to support your own opinions about what you should eat. However, common sense should prevail. The idea that obesity doesn't matter if you avoid the cancer-causing, artery-clogging foods does not make sense and does not fit the data.

A large portion of that $147 billion goes to treat type II diabetes and its complications. . . a major one being kidney failure (I seem to remember a Medicare report citing $40 billion for that one item alone). The link between obesity and type II diabetes is pretty clear, and the case studies showing that type II diabetics, once their obesity is treated (by exercise, diet or surgery) reduce or eliminate their dependence on drugs and their likelihood of developing the related conditions.

For the CDC plan to work, we can't nitpick about basics. Even the current food guidelines, imperfect as they are, are better than a diet based on 7-10 fastfood meals (supersized) a week. Likewise, no one can argue that increasing activity to 60 minutes a day is not going to improve health.

Let's get up to some minimal standard before we start looking for perfection.

Posted by: drmary | July 28, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

There is a healthy, simple and very successful solution to both weight and chronic health issues: whole body nutritional cleansing. There are thousands of folks both nationally and internationally who can and will attest to this fact, who have learned first hand of the benefits. This is a very sustainable life-style change that WORKS (isn't that what it takes?!) Yes, it is right under our noses. It just makes simple sense! Watch "Food Matters" at and then go to to learn more. It's just a matter of changing your paradigm! Change it,and your life will be changed!

Posted by: karynwc | July 28, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

The belief that there is a simple and easy solution to the national obesity problem is another stumbling block. "Why should we be putting tax dollars into the problem if all it takes is for everyone to go on the (fill-in-the-blank)plan, available from my website?"

We did not reach our current level of obesity overnight - it's been (at least) a 20-year-long journey. We can not expect to simply change one thing in everyone's lifestyle and have the problem go away tomorrow.

Indeed, there are many contributing factors to this epidemic and most of them are probably synergistic. Any one of these factors might also be balanced by good habits, which is why we may know meat-eating, cream-drinking, salt-inhaling folks who have no health problems; that does not mean we can copy their diet and expect to enjoy the same health.

The CDC proposal is a good start, but I don't see it working without a lot of public support - the connection between obesity and poor health is clear, and the trend towards both increasing numbers of obese Americans and Americans that are increasingly more obese is clear. One can only assume that the lack of public interest is due to an unwillingness to accept the facts.

Such mass denial is understandable - national obesity will take both time and effort to cure; it's much easier to believe that science, magic or the internet will provide a quick and painless solution.

Posted by: drmary | July 28, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

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