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Can we afford a fat America?

By Jay MacDonald · Bankrate.com
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Posted: 11 am ET

First, the good news: More Americans are lacing up the sneakers and trying to work off those excess pounds that can send their health insurance and life insurance premiums through the roof. The bad news? We're still not winning the battle of the bulge.

The most recent fat-fighting figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that the number of Americans who exercise regularly rose to 34.7 percent in 2009, up 3 percent from the previous year.

You remember 2009, right? That’s when we woke up with a love-handle hangover to find that our national obesity rate for those 20 and older had ballooned from 19.4 percent to 28 percent in just 12 months. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight; one-third obese, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Despite the new ranks of morning joggers among us, our national waistline didn't budge in 2009. Unfortunately, the number of adults with diabetes did -- it rose to 9 percent, up nearly 1 percent from 2008.

Obesity brings with it an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, liver and gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis and certain types of cancer. These conditions contribute to a host of indirect costs that result from decreased worker productivity, absenteeism and physical restrictions.

You can check out your own body mass index at the CDC's calculator.

Why the recent obsession with obesity? Health concerns and human compassion aside, it’s all about the Benjamins. In fact, the hefty life insurance and health insurance premiums you pay are the financial equivalent of walking around with the portly Mr. Franklin your back.

Quoting from a U.S. Department of Agriculture abstract of "Health Insurance, Obesity and Its Economic Costs," a paper by authors Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University and Neeraj Sood of the RAND Corp.: "Because medical costs are higher for the obese and premiums do not depend on weight, lighter people in the same pool pay for the food/exercise decisions of the obese. Furthermore, the negative health effects of obesity decrease the ability of the obese to pay for government-mandated social programs."

In other words, collectively as a nation, we're shouldering the financial weight of more than 72 million obese Americans whose weight-related medical care cost $147 billion in 2008. By contrast, the American Cancer Society estimates the cost to treat all cancers combined was $93 billion in 2008.

It's quite a quandary, isn’t it? Food is not illegal nor is exercise compulsory. Who doesn't love french fries? Or Santa Claus? Yet like it or not, those who are not obese share in the health care costs for those who are.

What's the answer? How would you solve the obesity epidemic?

Follow Jay MacDonald on Twitter.

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14 Comments
Seph
August 07, 2010 at 12:18 am

Yes America need to shape up, but...

The BMI is ridiculous. Insurance companies and bureaucrats love it because it's easy to calculate, but a lot of doctors are speaking out against it. The problem with the BMI is that it is simplistic. For one thing it doesn't take muscle into account in any meaningful way. I have a higher than average BMI (according to the CDC) but a lower than average body fat percentage.

I don't need some bureaucrat (in insurance companies or the government) to tell me I'm overweight and to micromanage my coverage or diet. My body fat, cholesterol, and blood sugars have never been better, as well as my physical and mental fitness. And yes, I eat a lot of meat, eggs and other "no, nos" as well as vegetables, fruit and nuts.

I've stopped eating all of the things that our very own government has been subsiding for decades...CHEAP grain, oil, and corn syrup. Given their track record, they had better stay out.