10/09/2014 07:39 am ET Updated Oct 09, 2014

Being Obese Almost As Costly As Not Going To College

Ben Birchall/PA Archive

Being overweight has heavy financial implications.

Obese 18-year-old men will earn 18 percent less over their a lifetime than those of a normal weight, according to a recent study published in the research journal Demography. This is roughly the same lifetime earnings penalty as missing about three years of college education, the researchers point out.

The team analyzed health and wage statistics for 150,000 Swedish men who enlisted in mandatory military service at age 18 in the 1980s and 1990s. Since obesity can be affected by factors like household income, the researchers controlled for family characteristics by only using men who had a brother also included in the study. This allowed researchers to compare heavier and thinner brothers who had the same family backgrounds, controlling for things like wealth, geography or ethnicity.

Even when brothers were compared, the researchers found that obesity correlated with lower earnings. They hypothesized that the gap was due to obese teens not fully developing so-called "non-cognitive" skills, like confidence and self-motivation. The "bullying, lower self-esteem, and discrimination by peers and teachers" that these obese male teens experienced likely had a ripple effect through their future financial lives, according to the study.

The researchers pointed out that this is not exclusively a Swedish problem, as they found "strikingly similar results using U.S. and UK data."

The findings are alarming, considering that childhood obesity has tripled in the United States since the late 1970s, according to the CDC. Obesity is also a leading cause of death in the U.S.

The study said that it is critical for countries to introduce policies and programs to combat childhood obesity, "in order to reduce healthcare expenditures as well as poverty and inequalities later in life."

(H/T: The Economist)