Obesity is costly in more ways than one

Many of us recognize that obesity is a big problem. In fact, it is of such concern that one of the national health objectives for 2010 is to reduce the prevalence of obesity among adults

By Patt ie Dale Tye
President of Humana-

Many of us recognize that obesity is a big problem. In fact, it is of such concern that one of the national health objectives for 2010 is to reduce the prevalence of obesity among adults to less than 15 percent. According to results from the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), “An estimated 32.7 percent of U.S. adults 20 years and older are overweight, 34.3 percent are obese and 5.9 percent are extremely obese.”

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have declared “Obesity is a public health crisis.” If the rate of obesity and overweight continues at this pace, they expect that 75 percent of U.S. adults will be overweight and 41 percent will be obese by 2015.

In the past, related studies identified that there were serious health consequences to obesity: heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, to name a few. They also went so far as to indicate that such health conditions added significantly to the cost of health care for society.

What is new is that society is beginning to take a hard look at what obesity and/or being overweight costs per individual from a dollars and cents perspective and how it affects the workplace and the economy.

An article published in Newsweek this past August, reported on some additional ways that Americans are paying for the extra weight:

  1. Stanford University researchers found that obese men and women earn, on average, $3.41 per hour less than their peers.
  2. Obese workers, on average, tend to lose a week of work a year due to ailments related to their weight, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  3. Overweight males incur medical costs that are $170 more annually than their leaner co-workers, while overweight females incur costs $495 higher than their counterparts, according to Eric A. Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman’s “The Fattening of America.”
  4. In the 1990s, Americans’ average weight increased by 10 pounds, which meant that airlines spent $275 million on fuel costs in one year to account for that average increase in weight. As a result, some airlines required these people to buy additional seats if they took up more than one seat on the flight.
  5. Obviously, more weight burns more gasoline in cars, too. A 2006 study published in the journal The Engineering Economist found that Americans pumped 938 million more gallons of fuel a year than they did in 1960.

A research actuary at Humana looked at the issue with even more specificity. By reviewing recent national health care data along with the company’s data, the actuary found it costs about $19.39 in added health care costs annually for every overweight pound. That figure equates to about $1,037.64 for every overweight individual annually and adds about $127 billion to the national health care bill each year.

Actually, according to the findings, the cost increases with age. For a 25-year-old, the cost averages $10.25 for every overweight pound. By age 64, the cost increases to $26.32

All of these numbers add up to one thing: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . doctors need to be comfortable discussing weight issues, as well as obesity, with patients.

Fortunately, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers some helpful tips in “Aim for a Healthy Weight - 3 Steps to Initiate Discussion About Weight Management With Your Patients.” In this piece, the NHLBI provides physicians some specific suggestions to set goals for behavior change together with the patient.


  1. Discuss the collaborative effort needed for setting goals.
  2. Ask what the patient’s weight goals are.
  3. Explain that even a small weight loss of 10 percent of initial weight can lower health risks.
  4. Ask the patient if he/she would like help with diet and physical activity.
  5. Select two or three measurable, achievable goals and discuss steps needed to achieve them.
  6. Provide and discuss patient handouts in The Practical Guide and/or refer the patient to a dietitian or exercise specialist