Sticker shock. That's what America experienced last week when a national study put a price-tag of $147 billion on the cost of obesity.
It has been well-known for some time that the country pays dearly for its love of fatty foods, big portions and a sedentary lifestyle in the form of increasing rates of diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. But the study, released by the Centers for Disease Control, was jarring because it said that 9.1 percent of all U.S. medical spending is attributable to patients who are obese or overweight.
Even more troubling was the rate of increase -- the costs have nearly doubled in less than a decade and there's no evidence that the ballooning will slow. Seventeen percent of U.S. adolescents and children already are overweight, which is nothing compared to the 73 percent of adults who are overweight or obese.
There's no medical mystery to be unraveled here. The prevalence of obesity -- that's a body mass index greater than 30 -- increased by 37 percent between 1998 and 2006, which was responsible for nearly all of the increased weight-related medical costs. Expenditures went up across the spectrum, whether patients were receiving treatment through Medicare, Medicaid or private payer.
In other words, too many of us eat too much of what's bad for us and too few of us get enough exercise. The food industry; the proliferation of fast-food restaurants with their inexpensive fare; long hours spent at our desks; long commutes to and from home -- those are some of the factors that have contributed to this national epidemic.
Some changes could be accomplished with relative ease: A proposed tax on sugar-filled drinks, much like the higher tariffs imposed on cancer-causing tobacco products, is pending in Congress. Schools can increase the amount of physical activity that students get during the day. The federal school lunch program has added more healthy items in recent years, but the daily fare still includes too much pizza and too many french fries.
Broader nationwide efforts pose more challenges, particularly how to make fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables more easily available and more affordable, especially in areas of the country where the poverty rate is highest.
Congressional debate over health-care reform has focused on skyrocketing costs. One way to start controlling those costs is to learn how to control our weight.