Waging War on Obesity
As we sift through Covid-19 data, one fact is clear: being overweight or obese, as 74 percent of Americans are, triples the odds of Covid hospitalization, making unhealthy weight one of the most widespread risk factors for severe Covid symptoms.
It’s regrettable, then, that while our governments leapt at the opportunity to take actions to potentially limit the spread of Covid, they paid far less attention to the underlying chronic illnesses that make Americans vulnerable to the disease in the first place—many of which are driven by obesity.
According to a 2018 Milken Institute study, 47 percent of all U.S. spending on chronic illness can be attributed to obesity, which weakens the immune system and corrupts the body’s ability to carry out essential functions. Accumulation of excessive fat leads to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and more. It even drives hormonal changes that increase the risk of depression by 55 percent, which further saps physical health and unleashes spirals of despair, isolation, overconsumption, shame, and cognitive decline.
In addition to the terrifying human costs, American obesity brings substantial economic consequences. The same Milken Institute study estimated obesity-related direct healthcare costs of $481 billion in 2016 and an additional $1.24 trillion in indirect costs due to lost economic productivity—a combined $1.72 trillion (or 9.3 percent of U.S. GDP). This astonishing figure—proportionate to peak U.S. defense spending during the Cold War—is the most direct indicator of the magnitude of the challenge we face.
Indeed, every dollar America spends on treating obesity is another dollar diverted from critical investments in America’s future. Every hour an obese person loses to low energy or depression is an hour that could have been spent strengthening his or her bonds with the community and living a life defined by more than production and consumption.
When a person is obese, everything becomes more expensive and exhausting—from feeding and clothing oneself to getting out of bed and working. These challenges result in an extra $1,900 in annual out-of-pocket costs for obese Americans, who are 2.5 times more likely than the rest of the population to be “overindebted”—that is, to have taken on more debt than they ever reasonably can repay.
For all the talk of green energy or student debt in our political conversation, it is shameful that such little public attention has been paid to a health, cultural, and financial crisis that so severely affects our nation. Understandably, it’s uncomfortable to talk about obesity in a political context, especially when many of our leading industries benefit from the worsening obesity crisis. More citizens unable to moderate their consumption of material goods means more debt interest for creditors; sicker patients means more demand for drugs and medical interventions; an immobilized population consuming more screen time means more attention for content creators, platform owners, and advertisers. That’s not to say those interests are actively working to keep Americans unhealthy, but that they have clear financial incentives that align with the status quo—making legislative action both unlikely and unwise, as any laws passed to combat obesity inevitably would be subject to regulatory capture.
This lack of public attention to obesity is even more distressing when one considers that misguided policies—ranging from subsidies favoring processed foods to car-centric urban planning and even the promotion of globalization—contributed to our obesity crisis in the first place. It’s a shame, then, that despite government being the source of America’s obesity crisis, government inertia means the American people have no one to rely on but themselves. But just because we’re on our own doesn’t mean we don’t have each other. Research suggests the most effective way to lose weight is in a community, as commercial weight loss programs suffer from principal-agent problems that promote repeat business; Americans struggle to sustainably lose weight on their own.
Given that three in five Americans are lonely—an ailment as deadly as obesity—and three in four Americans are obese, our citizens would be well served by reaching out to each other, building stronger communities, learning to be vulnerable, and holding each other accountable to become healthier, happier humans. Whether through neighborhood-oriented platforms, parent groups at schools, or ad hoc groups of coworkers, citizens have the power today to build supportive communities to live healthier lives and rebuild the bonds frayed by Covid, political polarization, and the scourge of lives lived online.
But that’ll never happen until American cultural and government leaders begin to publicly admit that a crisis exists. Admitting obesity is a problem doesn’t mean “fat shaming” people. Instead, it means allowing Americans to understand their battle against weight isn’t theirs alone is the first step in mobilizing the nation towards action. Obesity isn’t an insurmountable challenge—Americans must take heart that, despite our health challenges, we are still the hardest-working people in the world. Together, with an attitude of understanding and support, we can recognize and rout the great ill of obesity and become a people freer, healthier, and better equipped to address the great domestic and international challenges of our time.
Kenneth Schrupp is a Young Voices contributor writing on the intersection of business, politics and media. He also serves as editor-in-chief of the California Review, an independent journal.