Think progress/Labeled for reuse
Source: Think progress/Labeled for reuse

As a science and wellness writer, my focus is typically on motivating readers to make lifestyle changes that will optimize their physical and psychological well-being throughout a lifespan regardless of socioeconomics. This week, however, I was struck by research that focused solely on the economic toll of the obesity epidemic in the United States. 

Obesity rates have tripled over the past 30 years in the United States. Per capita obesity in the US is among the highest in the world. Currently, over one-third of adults and one-sixth of youths in the United States are considered obese. The economic cost of the obesity epidemic is mind-boggling. Two new studies have identified that the repercussions of obesity are costing American taxpayers and individuals hundreds of billions annually in medical bills.

Across the nation, obesity-related healthcare costs Americans between $147 billion and $210 billion each year, according to the latest 2015 State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America reportObesity is also associated with diminished work productivity and increassed absenteeism which costs the country $4.3 billion per year, according to the researchers. 

The most recent data on obesity from September 2015 shows that every state in our union has an obesity rate above 20 percent. Three states have obesity rates that exceed 35 percent (Arkansas, West Virginia, and Mississippi), 22 states have rates above 30 percent, while 45 states are above 25 percent. Arkansas has the highest adult obesity rate at 35.9 percent. Colorado has the lowest at 21.3 percent. If you live in the United States, and would like to use this interactive map to see how your home state ranks, see here

Courtesy of The State of Obesity
Adult Obesity Rate by State, 2014
Source: Courtesy of The State of Obesity

For the November 2015 issue of the journal Health Affairs, the editors created their first-ever thematic issue on "Food and Health." This issue focuses on the obesity epidemic. The topics covered by a broad range of contributors include: policies that can encourage healthier eating, the impact of food insecurity on overall health, and the cost of obesity to state Medicaid programs. The researchers estimate that severe obesity cost state Medicaid programs nearly $8 billion in 2013.

In a press release, contributor, Dr. David Katz, who is director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center said, "Obesity is, inevitably, enormously expensive, because it is on the causal pathway to every major chronic disease that plagues modern societies, diabetes most indelibly. The medical costs of obesity trickle down into the costs for conditions such as: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, dementia, and many more." 

Having a body mass index (BMI) in the moderate obesity range predicted an increase of $941 in annual per capita medical expenditures for all adults, relative to having a normal weight. For severe obesity, the increase was $1,980. Public sources paid for approximately 41 percent of the obesity-attributable expenditures associated with severe obesity; 30 percent by Medicare and other federal sources; Medicaid paid for 11 percent, according to the study authors.

Private insurances covered more than one-quarter of these expenses, while Medicare covered about 30 percent. State-run Medicaid programs paid 11 percent of obesity-related medical bills. Patients suffering from obesity were left to cover 30 percent out of their own pockets, the researchers found.

The November issue of Health Affairs also launched a new DataGraphic feature. The excerpted DataGraphic below provides a pictorial view of, "Obesity In The United States: A Look Over Time." See the larger graphic here.

Courtesy of Health Affairs
Source: Courtesy of Health Affairs

Conclusion: A Calorie Is a Calorie ... All for One, One for All

Obviously, the healthcare costs associated with obesity are inherently linked to human suffering and mortality, which is the ultimate tragedy of this epidemic. That said, the skyrocketing fiscal cost of obesity should be yet another motivator for each of us to tighten our beltstraps and tackle this epidemic head on individually through lifestyle choices and collectively through the funding of public and private initiatives that promote physical activity and healthier eating. 

Obesity is one of the biggest drivers of preventable chronic diseases and healthcare costs in the United States. From a strictly financial perspective, each of us should make a daily commitment to eat healthier and exercise more to maintain a balanced budget and be fiscally responsible. As a nation competing in a global economy, we are only as strong as our weakest link. 

In a sedentary post-industrial computer age, each one of us is literally a sitting duck for becoming obese. The double whammy of sedentarism and easy access to calorically dense, inexpensive junk food leads to rapid weight gain. I know from personal experience that I can easily scarf down a Double Quarter-Pounder with Cheese in a matter of minutes, yet burning off those calories on a treadmill takes well over an hour of intense cardio. 

Not to sound too much like a Three Musketeer but, there is something to be said for the concept of "All for One, One for All" when it comes to obesity. From a patriotic perspective, I interpret the latest fiscal statistics on the astronomical obesity-related healthcare costs as a call-to-action for each of us (myself included) to do our part as citizens and members of American communities to be part of the obesity solution, not the problem.

The next time you want to over indulge in high-calorie foods or stay planted on the couch watching TV, why not consider motivating yourself to modify your behavior for somebody else? This could be a neighbor, a family member, a soldier fighting in a war overseas, etc. My father died unexpectedly of a heart attack at a young age. His coronary disease was caused primarily by daily lifestyle choices of overeating, under-exercising, and chronic stress. As the father of an 8-year-old, I don't want to suffer the same fate as my dad and leave this world, or my daughter, prematurely. 

Obesity is a personal and non-partisan issue. With over 30% of our adult population classified as obese, this crisis makes all of us vulnerable to the long-term threat of hemorraging extraordinary financial resources and taxpayer dollars to cope with so many Americans being obese. Even if you aren't particularly motivated to lose weight for yourself, why not do it for a fellow American and the next generation who will be saddled with our healthcare debts?

What can you do to reduce the healthcare costs of obesity? If you are obese, the answer is simple, "Lose weight." Obviously, weightloss is always easier said than done. But, as the debate rages on about how much of weight-gain is due to the types of foods and number of calories someone eats, or if it has more to do with physical inactivity... The bottom line remains the same: if you make a commitment to exercise more, and eat less everyday moving forward, you will lose weight.

Based on common sense and years of research I still believe that the key to weightloss is based on calories in-calories out. Regular physical activity that includes a variety of strength training and aerobics combined with eating a limited quantity of sugary drinks but plenty of water along with a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and fish is the recipe for maintaining a healthy weight. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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