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Arthur Agatston, M.D. Headshot

The Real Cost of Obesity

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No matter what health care delivery system this country adopts, no matter what plan or series of plans are enacted, it will be bankrupted in no time by the ongoing obesity epidemic if we don't act now. President Obama talks about adopting a plan that's revenue neutral. But no current cost model could ever compete with this frightening trend.

This week we learned that spending on obesity-related medical issues jumped 82 percent from 2001 to 2006, with the current price tag $147 billion a year.

But these startling stats really aren't that startling when you also learn that two-thirds of American adults and one-third of the children in this country are either overweight or obese. Today, the typical baby boomer male weighs just shy of 200 pounds and the average baby boomer female weighs more than 170. I'm afraid this isn't news for us preventive cardiologists. Unfortunately, we treat obese patients with heart disease, prediabetes and diabetes, and dozens of other obesity-related ailments in our practices every day.

And it's not just cardiologists who deal with these issues. Many people with weight problems look to their primary-care doctors to solve this burgeoning battle of the bulge. But the sad fact is that most doctors don't have the practical experience to make a dent in this epidemic, as much as they'd like to.

Fighting obesity is really a public health issue that must be centered in individual communities, workplaces, and schools and involve grassroots action and education. And the initiative must get into high gear now.

We need to create communities where fresh and healthier food, not just fast food, is within easy access, where there are paved sidewalks and bike paths that encourage physical activity, where the opportunity to exercise is more widely available in the workplace. We need schools where physical education is mandatory and playgrounds are plentiful. We need schools that teach our children about healthy eating at an early age (with hands-on vegetable garden "science labs" that excite kids about eating what they grow). And in those same schools we need healthier cafeteria meals and nutritious snacks in the vending machines. Furthermore, we need to encourage busy families to sit down at the dinner table together, even if it's only once a week.

And we can't stop there. There's no argument that fresh vegetables are better for kids than potato chips and that regular exercise is essential for maintaining a healthy body. But while we know these ideas work, we should never become complacent. We should always be evaluating their efficacy. Even in this difficult economic climate, we need to continually be investing research dollars (and perhaps some of that stimulus money) to determine what's most impactful. And we must never stop looking for new ways to make our nation healthier.

Unless we do something soon, the billions we're currently paying in weight-related medical bills will seem like a drop in the bucket. Ultimately the escalating obesity-related costs alone can sink any health care system we put into place in this country.

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