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Can we afford a fat America?

By Jay MacDonald ·
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?

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August 06, 2010 at 11:47 pm

better start fast...

August 06, 2010 at 4:24 pm

If we could somehow convince the health insurance industry to start charging more based on peoples BMI, then we would have a slimmer, healthier society. The same way increased taxes on tobacco discourages people from smoking.

August 06, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Regarding the comments from Holden Lewis that grains, even whole grains, are simple carbohydrates: Grains are complex carbohydrates, whether or not they're whole grains. Simple carbohydrates would include foods such as table sugar, and honey, but also healthy foods, such as apples and berries, and other fruits, which will not spike your blood sugar like refined sugars will.

August 06, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Everything in moderation I think is the answer allong with a reasonable amount of exercise. It's also probably healthier to try and avoid too much highly processed foods.

July 08, 2010 at 8:16 pm

even with people in their fourties are young no one has the excuse of being fat america when we are all in it together money wise only and this diet with food use your own intutition.

Holden Lewis
July 08, 2010 at 10:52 am

You and me both, AM. That's the big secret -- that simple carbohydrates, especially grains (even "whole grains") cause a spike in blood sugar, and lead to obesity, metabolic syndrome and even diabetes.

But the USDA continues to put grains at the base of its food pyramid. The conspiracist in me wonders whether the USDA does this because farmers and supermarkets don't make as much profit on green leafies as they make on processed foods with wheat and corn.

It's difficult to cut wheat and cornmeal out of your diet. But when you do, it's amazing to see how quickly the weight falls off. (You gotta cut out soda and corn syrup, too.)

Jay MacDonald
July 08, 2010 at 9:51 am

You're right on the money, Amy. As Michael Pollan points out in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the multi-billion-dollar manufactured food industry not only threatens our health, it's messing with the health of the very environment that sustains us. How does all of this affect insurance? Bottom line, if the nation continues to grow fatter, we will generate more health insurance claims and die younger, both bad news is you're a health or life insurer. Might the insurance industry become increasingly vocal on the subject, especially childhood obesity? They will if they know what's good for them.

Ruby Clifton
July 08, 2010 at 1:59 am

With the fast food gaining ground, obesity among the children is growing at an alarming proportion. The children should be taught the benefits of games, exercise and high fiber diet. They should also be well insured to cover the risks associated with the modern hectic lifestyle.

July 07, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Well, it's a situation but frankly, it's one we've brought on ourselves.

Part of the obesity problem is because the USDA has made grains the "base" of the human diet. Grain is what you use to fatten animals. It turns out that it fattens people, too.

We've know for a very long time how to take off body fat. Look up "Banting", which meant "dieting" for at least 150 years before we decided we were way smarter than all the people who came before us. (It's that evil fat that's the problem!!! *grin*)

Bottom line, carbohydrates in any form are very problematic in terms of body fat, even occasionally when calories are restricted.

*shrug* I'll know the USDA is serious about the obesity problem when it begins suggesting carbohydrate restriction (especially and including all forms of sugar) in addition to calorie restriction.

July 06, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I think that teaching children at a young age about proper nutrition,exercise,and living a healthy lifestyle is crucial towards fighting the battle of the bulge in America. I think making healthier food choices less expensive would be wise instead of the other way around. People are struggling to put food on the table so they go with whatever is cheap. We need the good food choices to be cheaper and the bad foods to be more expensive.