Monday, June 25, 2012

Obesity A Huge Problem For America

Even without injuries, people that suffer from obesity have drastically reduced mobility. Carrying around a large amount of extra bulk, they are almost always out of breath, unable to bend, put their shoes on, get out of a chair, or walk unaided for more than a few paces. Climbing stairs is often out of the question for the massively overweight, and obesity on such a scale can also cause breathing problems while sleeping. Obesity occurs over a period of time, is hard to combat, the bottom line, it detracts from the quality of life and there is no fun in being truly fat. I'm not particularly interested in saving the obese from themselves but I'm very concerned about the costs that the obese impose on others through higher health insurance rates, and for the taxpayers who pay for Medicaid, Medicare, and social security disability benefits.

Obesity A Growing Problem
Obesity is a huge problem and growing larger, it already cost America over $190 billion a year. Obesity accounts for about 21% of the amount spent on medical services and is set to rise much higher. If current trends continue, by 2030 the estimate is obesity will probably cost the country $550 billion a year. One third of adult Americans are overweight, and another third are obese  according to the National Center for Health Statistics. More ominously, almost a third of those under 20 years of age are overweight or obese. Today’s youngsters are on track to become the first generation of Americans to have shorter life-spans than their parents as more of them suffer from cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis, liver complaints and other obesity-related conditions.

Some of the best minds have wrestled with the problem. Most agree there is no one simple explanation why obesity has become an epidemic. Top of the list of likely causes is the country's massive overproduction of food that got underway a generation ago. In the 1970s, agricultural subsidies switched to encourage farmers to grow as much as they could. Meanwhile, the green revolution, along with technological improvements to farm equipment, made agribusiness more productive than ever. Inevitably, food prices plummeted. Lower prices meant people started eating out more often. Portions increased in size as the proliferation of pizza parlors, quick-food joints and family restaurants vied for customers. In my book "Advancing Time" I also blame innovations like the microwave oven that make cooked food available at any time quickly and with little effort.

Part of the problem is that food has become more calorific. One particular effect of agricultural subsidies was to make high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener manufactured from maize, much cheaper. Fructose, salt, and trans-fats are used widely by the food industry today because they are inexpensive alternatives for healthier ingredients.  Moreover, the way modern food is processed  makes more of its calories available for digestion, so even those who are not consuming more by weight are actually consuming more by calorific value. This is occurring at a time when people have adopted more sedentary lifestyles in the workplace as well as around the home. The HBO documentary ("The Weight of the Nation") tell people what they already knew: that fast food, processed snacks, sugary breakfast cereals, soda and juices are bad for them; that fresh food costs more than junk food, which hurts the poor; that fad diets do not work; that real weight reduction takes time; and that the best way to manage obesity is to prevent it, weight gained is very hard to shed..

The good news is that people who lose just 10% of their weight gain significant health benefits. And though it may take years, changing your eating habits for the better and increasing the amount of exercise you do really does show results. A person who consumes 100 fewer calories a day can typically expect to lose ten pounds over the course of three years. One ray of hope in the battle against gluttony is  the wholesale way people accepted anti-smoking rules in a short space of time. Admittedly, sin taxes and education about the harm smoking causes have given smokers good reason to quit, and the discounts health insurers offered non-smokers provided further incentive. Could sin taxes, better education, and insurance breaks encourage people to eat less junk food? It is hard to say. A 35% increase in the price of sugary drinks in a cafeteria at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston has led to a 26% drop in consumption.

Studies indicate that to be really effective, a sin tax on junk food would have to be punitively high. A better approach all round might be to adopt financial support measures similar to those that helped create junk food in the first place, so they might do the same for healthy food.  The American food industry has proved itself to be the most innovative in the world. Given the will—and enough financial inducement—that industry would no doubt find healthier, more tempting alternatives, and devise ways of marketing them at prices everyone could afford.  The price elasticity of foodstuffs generally suggests that, on average, prices would need to double to get a 10% reduction in consumption. Some feel such a tax would be unjustifiably regressive, punishing precisely the people needing to be protected the most. The point is we need to do something and encourage people to take more personal responsibility, a healthier nation would thank them hugely.

        This post dovetails with a post I wrote on April 7, 2012 (Health Care The Issue Redefined)    
        America must find ways to reduce healthcare cost going forward, obesity is a tax on us all.  

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