Opinion: We Must Fight Fat

Obesity is a national health crisis, one that—quite literally—weighs on us all. It costs lives. It costs dollars. And in the context of our current health-reform debate in Washington, it's time we took action, as a nation and as individuals, to address this cost.

While infectious disease was a scourge as recently as our grandparents' generation, chronic disease is killing us and harming our well-being—and obesity is the root cause. The growth in obesity is strongly linked to heart disease, hypertension, and the explosion of diabetes that our country is currently experiencing. These and other chronic diseases account for seven out of every 10 deaths each year and are the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. They are also responsible for more than 75 percent of the nation's health-care spending.

Year after year, more Americans have become obese or overweight, now representing one third of the population. One in five 4-year-olds are obese, contributing to the fact that for the first time ever, children may have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

But the obesity crisis isn't simply a health crisis; it is also an economic crisis—and the amount that it costs us in terms of lost lives, lost productivity, and lost dollars is staggering and deserves more attention from our national leaders, and from us.

Obesity accounts for nearly 10 percent of what the U.S. spends annually on health care and is linked to about one third of the increase in domestic health spending since the mid-1980s. It is a huge cost driver in Medicare and Medicaid—so even if you or your family members are not obese, you, like the rest of us, are paying for this crisis. Were obesity at 1987 levels, Medicare spending would be $40 billion per year lower than it was in 2006.

A study in the journal Health Affairs reported that an obese person has $1,429 per year more medical costs, or about 42 percent more, than someone of normal weight. A University of Florida study found that health-care spending for 65-year-old men of normal weight was 6 to 13 percent less over the remainder of their lifetime than those who were overweight or obese.

At a time when Americans are on tight budgets and Congress is struggling to "find" savings to pay for health-care reform, it's easy to see why we need to make changes. Policy changes in Washington are a critical part of the solution. We need common-sense reforms in our health system (such as lowering copays on preventive care and offering programs to help overweight Americans), in our schools (such as reinstating physical education and requiring school lunches to meet nutritional standards), in our workplaces (such as offering tax credits to employers that offer wellness benefits and encourage health inside and outside of the workplace), and in our communities (such as ensuring that all Americans have access to a place to be physically active and purchase healthy foods).

But to win the fight against obesity, all of us need to be individually committed.

Americans need to make healthy choices in our own lives, and acknowledge that without proper diet and exercise and smart lifestyle choices, we're setting ourselves up for more serious health problems and costs down the road. Improving your health can be as simple as altering a few behaviors. Take a walk on your lunch hour or use the stairs at work instead of the elevator. Add an extra vegetable to your shopping cart. Push back from the table instead of having a second helping. Take a walk after work with your family. Get the kids off the couch and into the yard or park.

We also need to provide support for evidence-based clinical interventions that will help those who are already overweight or obese improve their health. We know that as little as a 5 to 10 percent weight loss can significantly reduce risk factors for chronic disease, including lower blood-glucose levels, lower blood pressure, and reduced cholesterol levels.

It's hard to motivate ourselves to make some of these changes, and we shouldn't be expected to find all of this motivation on our own. Our political leaders need to start adopting policies that encourage better health decisions and provide incentives to prevent obesity and chronic conditions.

Many congressional members and the president have already articulated thoughtful preventive strategies in their health-care platforms, but there has still been far too little discussion about the fact that obesity is a problem that we as individuals have to deal with, otherwise there will be consequences to our health spending and our general health, well-being, and quality of life.

We know that by reducing obesity, we can reap savings. It is also the right thing to do from a health perspective. This isn't rocket science—it's just plain common sense.