Congress must tackle obesity and costs to economy

Beyond the medical costs associated with an unhealthy lifestyle are the indirect costs of obesity on our economy and society, including the value of income lost from decreased productivity, restricted activity, absenteeism, and loss of future income due to premature death. According to a recent study, workers in the U.S. who are both overweight or obese and have other chronic health conditions miss an estimated 450 million additional days of work each year when compared with healthier workers. This results in an estimated cost of more than $153 billion in lost productivity each year. The poor health of individuals and the related direct and indirect costs create an enormous drain on the health of our overall economy.

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In weak response, Congress and various state and local legislators have considered soda taxes and a recent study conducted by Y. Claire Wang, MD of Columbia University showed that by implementing a national tax on sugary drinks we could lower diabetes and heart disease. The irony of this band aid approach is that the very government that is considering the soda tax is the same entity responsible for the production of cheap high fructose corn syrup made from an abundance of underpriced corn produced as a result of dated crop subsidies in the farm bill. It’s the epitome of the butterfly effect or unintended consequences. The best solution is not to tax sugary drinks but to ensure that the policies in place are consistent with the goal of lowering obesity rates in this country. Although the large food companies would scream, we need to eliminate crop subsidies that reward the over production of corn, soybeans, and other crops that eventually find their way into highly processed foods that are making us fat. If, as the MyPlate depicts, we want to encourage people to eat fruits and vegetables, then eliminate the policies that are in conflict with this goal.

It is certainly not the government’s role to dictate or monitor what people eat and how much they move. However, it is the government’s role to enact laws, regulations, and policies that encourage a healthy society. It is also its role to be direct and straightforward, with facts about our current health, the associated costs, and the dire predictions for the future health of our society. Simply stated, we are not built to sustain a healthy body when we are living increasingly sedentary lifestyles, eating processed garbage at an alarming rate, and indeed becoming a fast food nation addicted to high calorie, nutrition-poor foods. We have sidestepped the importance of taking individual accountability, and have somehow underestimated the buying power we have when we make choices regarding food and activity. With 150 million adults at an unhealthy weight and 2012 now underway, we are at a critical juncture where straightforward, tough love talk and supportive policies are essential to end the obesity epidemic that has caused our budgets and waistlines to bulge.
 
Laura Michina is the author of I'm Fat, Help Me.