Living Off the Fat of the Land: How Companies Are Milking Obesity for All Its Worth

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The impact of obesity on the American economy is harmful all around. Many individuals are enjoying the foods that propel their poor health. They also suffer increased medical costs via taxes and heightened insurance premiums. Those who do attempt to better their health often try to use dietary supplements instead of proper nutrition while being oblivious to the dangers they present. Employers pay more for insurance premiums, too, and they lose money due to employee “absenteeism” and “presenteeism” — defined as “costs due to employees being absent from work… [and] decreased productivity of employees while at work”, respectively (CDC, “Adult Obesity Causes and Consequences”). There are solutions to the obesity epidemic and the weight of its financial burden, and they largely start at the individual level: growing crops at home; improving overall health via proper dieting and exercise; eating out less (or not at all); and eating less, if any, junk food. If the American population adhered to these changes, a snowball effect would take place in American economics; fast food companies would shrink in size, health insurance premiums would decline — essentially, both industries would become a buyer’s market, and more people would be able to save more money. America is renowned for its variety, quantity and creativeness with food and beverages. Television channels exist that are dedicated to celebrity chef shows, varying from live kitchen infomercials to competitive reality television series. Adverts for food are displayed across multimedia in billboards and newspaper ads, commercials in online video streaming services, and during intermissions in live sporting events. The fast food industry has a global worth of $570 billion dollars — $200 billion dollars of it exclusive to America (Sena). The world’s first fast food restaurant — White Castle — was created in America in 1921, and is still in business (White Castle). White Castle, and many other well-known chain restaurants — like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) — are products of American ingenuity. How ingenious consuming fast food actually is, however, is clearly questionable, at best.

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Not coincidentally, America is also renowned for how overweight its population is. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “the prevalence of obesity was 39.8% and affected about 93.3 million of US adults in 2015-2016” (CDC, “Adult Obesity Facts”). This obviously presents a health issue: obesity is linked to many ailments, including heart disease, dementia and diabetes. On a personal level, people lose money to these diseases — according to the CDC, “the medical cost for people who have obesity was $1,429 higher than those of normal weight (in 2008)” (CDC, “Adult Obesity Facts”). Employers who offer health insurance cover a portion of those insurance premiums, and lose money on every obese employee. Furthermore, when employees are out of work due to illnesses or hospitalization caused by obesity, they lose money as a result of not working; and employers lose money in lost productivity, and possibly in short-term or long-term disability payments. The good news is, according to Dr. James M. Rippe, many of these problems can be reversed: “... a few of the benefits of losing a modest amount of weight, defined as weight loss of 5% to 10% of initial body weight [results in reduced] risk of breast cancer… [a] drop in blood pressure… by 10 points for every 20 pounds of weight lost… [an] increase [in good cholesterol] incrementally for every BMI change downward of one unit… [and reduced] incidence of diabetes by 58%” (43). However, the bad news is that better health alone has yet to convince 93.3 million American adults to make the change from unhealthy lifestyles to healthy ones. Many people insist that they do not have the time nor the willpower to attempt losing weight — however, the less that people try to become healthy, the less amount of time they will actually have. Typically, people will not concern themselves with having more time until it is too late; however, an old adage details an immortal concept that almost no one can ignore: time is money.

Healthcare costs in America are not cheap. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Americans spent “$3.3 trillion dollars, or $10, 348 per person in 2016” (“National Health Expenditures 2016 Highlights”). The most recent dollar amount available regarding treating obesity comes from the CDC, stating that “the estimated annual cost… was $147 billion in 2008 dollars…” (CDC, “Adult Obesity Facts”). Adjusting for inflation, that amount is roughly equal to $209.8 billion dollars for 2016 (BLS, “CPI Inflation Calculator”). Disregarding the likely rises in the cost of treating obesity since 2008, the aforementioned figure still accounts for approximately 6.4% of the 2016 total expenditures ($3.3 trillion) — this percentage is likely higher now, considering that the amount of obese adults in the United States has increased from 34% in 2008 to 39.8% in 2016 (CDC, “MMWR”; “Adult Obesity Facts”). While considering these numbers, it is important to note that many Americans, healthy or not, are not visiting doctors; these numbers reflect on the average across the US population and do not represent exact figures for individuals. Noting that, the costs for some individuals is remarkably higher than the average. If people stopped to consider how staggering the cost of healthcare is, many would likely make sudden changes to their lifestyles in order to avoid it.

The not-so-feasible choice for weight loss involves dietary supplements. In May 2015, The Nutrition Business Journal pens the US dietary supplements industry as being worth $37.6 billion (Bradley). Despite the evident popularity of these products, their effectiveness and safety are questioned by medical professionals nationwide. Harvard Health Publishing attests that the testing procedures for the quality of vitamins is not thorough enough: “many of those exciting supplement studies were observational—they didn't test a particular supplement against a placebo (inactive pill) in a controlled setting… Because observational studies may not fully control for dietary factors, exercise habits, and other variables, they can't prove whether the treatment is responsible for the health benefits” (“Dietary supplements: Do they help or hurt?”). Additionally, dietary supplements are not regulated as thoroughly by the FDA as they should be. Business Insider interviewed Steven Tave, the director of the office of dietary supplement programs at the FDA, about the regulation of supplements for an article in 2017, and his blunt response was disheartening. He claims that “[m]ost of the time, [the office of dietary supplement programs does not] know a product is on the market until [they] see something bad about it from an adverse-event report” (qtd. in Brodwin). Therefore, the dietary supplement market should not be trusted by Americans; instead, relying on proper nutrition for healthy living (and by extension, practical money management) is far more reliable.

Proper nutrition is the core of all physiological betterment. Proteins keep muscles strong and intact; sugars and fats fuel the body; vitamins and minerals improve bodily functions; and fiber helps remove waste inside the body. Any diet worth practicing will include all of these important factors. While omnivore diets can achieve the balance needed between the various criterion of a wholesome diet, eating animal products has adverse effects that eating organic plants does not, such as not getting enough antioxidants (which help fight cancer) and “an increased risk of total, [cardiovascular disease] and cancer mortality” (Carlsen et al.; Pan et al.) By cutting back on meat consumption and increasing their plant-foods intake, Americans can reduce their medical expenses while achieving proper nutrition. One way to save money, lose weight and achieve proper nutrition is planting and consuming organic fruits and vegetables. Dr. Leonard Perry, a horticulture professor at the University of Vermont, quotes the Garden Media Group in his informative essay “Gardening Trends in 2017”: “From growing arugula to bok choy, clean fresh food will be available to plant, pick and plate every season…. From herbal tea gardens on the window sill and healing herbs under lights to vitamin-packed microgreens on the kitchen counter, medicinal gardens are blooming indoors” — and Dr. Perry himself states that “the indoor gardening market [had] grown 8.2 percent [between 2012 and 2017]” (Perry).

Consuming ‘vitamin-packed’ organic fruits and vegetables, instead of unhealthy snacks, helps people combat many ailments —let alone obesity — and helps reduce medical costs. One of the largest complaints about eating healthily is that it is too expensive — but even for (perhaps especially for) those who do not have yards, there are ways to grow fresh fruits and vegetables indoors. This could save them money on food, as well as save them from weight gain. Global Garden Friends, Inc. created a short list of the top five perks of indoor gardening, and the number one reason they provide is particularly useful: “You can grow your fruits, vegetables, and plants all year round. There is no rain, wind, or snow to hinder your gardening. Indoor growing allows you to control all the elements and grow your plants 365 days a year if [that is] what you want to do” (“5 Reasons to Grow Fruits and Vegetables Indoors”). When growing plants outside, there are many factors to consider, such as climate, pest prevention, and soil type. However, when planting inside, these factors make little to no difference — the indoor ‘climate’ can be adjusted, pests are not usually a problem in buildings, and the soil type can be determined for each plant when they are potted. Therefore, planting and consuming fresh vegetables will not only help reduce an individual’s current food costs and future medical costs — it is also a particularly easy alternative to eating junk food or dining out.

Another simple, yet more demanding change that compliments improving one’s diet is exercise — but people often become easily discouraged when results are not immediate. Often, people begin to work out and adjust their diets to consume less calories, and they see amazing results quickly — but, after a short while, they notice that their weight plateaus. This happens because “the heavier [a person is], the more calories [they] burn”; as such, when obese people begin dieting and exercising, a (potentially massive) caloric deficit is created, resulting in quick weight loss (“Do heavier people lose weight faster?”). Once these people find their caloric balance (hit a plateau), they sometimes become discouraged at how much harder they need to work to lose weight, and then slip back into their bad dietary / sedentary habits. However, the combined influence of the work they have invested, the money they have saved, a good support system and the psychological impact of improved health should be enough to keep dieters motivated. According to wellness website, depending on the age of an individual, shedding pounds can result in “saving… [on] average [as much as] $36,278 over the course of their [lifetime]”; these savings are deflections of both “obesity and its related diseases, [and] also losses in productivity at work…” (MacMillan). By including the difference in cost between consuming proper amounts of calories versus overeating, the savings are actually greater. The amount of calories a person should eat depends on many factors, including gender, BMI and their amount of exercise daily; consulting a doctor for clarity regarding caloric intake is recommended.

When it comes to managing personal health, Tom O’Bryan says it best in his book Autoimmune Fix: “We must stop going blindly forward thinking we’re ‘fine’. We have to wake up and learn how to take care of our bodies” (O’Bryan, xxix). In doing so, Americans would by extension take care of their economy as well. Following the aforementioned advice would limit the health insurance industry and make it much more affordable as the competition stiffened from less necessity; fast food industries would be forced to include particularly healthy options in order to be competitive, if they could be competitive with a hypothetical America unified by healthy living; and, with the increase in longevity associated with these changes, great-grandparents could live long enough to see their great-grandchildren graduate high school and/or college — a notion that many would consider priceless. Affordability does not have to be determined by the corporate greed of the American medical and food industries. It can be determined, instead, by the consumers - or more ideally, a lack thereof.

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