Ending obesity will save $487 billion…really?

Increasing obesity rates have significant costs to society. An article in MSN Money (“What if no one were fat?“) claims that if, on average, each American was to lose 20 pounds, we would save $487 billion. Where is this number coming from?

  • Savings on fuel for cars and airlines due to their lighter loads would top $5 billion.
  • Plus-sized clothing costs 10% to 15% more, so shoppers would save $10 billion on shirts, pants and dresses.
  • Reduced food consumption would translate into a savings of $81 billion.
  • The medical costs of obesity-related problems such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease run near $140 billion.
  • Productivity in the workplace would jump from fewer sick days and better health: This would lead to a savings of $257 billion.
  • The weight loss industry might become obsolete, resulting in a savings of $55 billion.

Are these figures credible? The savings on flights and car trips likely are true. Reduced material cost from plus-sized clothing may save costs, but any way to standardize the body shape would save costs. There would be significant cost savings as well if individuals were the same height. Cynthia Istook, an associate professor in textile apparel at North Carolina State University, says clothing makers could then afford to offer more variety in hip and bust sizes, rather than asking every woman to squeeze into an hourglass shape. Thus, costs likely would not decrease, but customization would increase.

Would reduced food consumption reduce obesity? The problem is not that food is too expensive; it is that it is too cheap. Eating a high calorie diet for a low cost is easy (just grab some fast food or buy processed food at the grocery store). Buying fresh fruit and vegetables is more expensive (in terms of calories per dollar) than eating processed food. Thus, moving people to a healthier diet will likely decrease obesity, but increase food costs.

Lower obesity rates likely would decrease disease rates. But just because there is a correlation between obesity and disease rates, doesn’t mean that obesity is the causal factor. It could be that individuals who are obese are also more disease-prone and this would be the case even if they lose weight. Still, on an annual basis, healthier living of course does decrease medical costs. Over a lifetime, however, healthier lifestyles and reduced obesity may actually increase medical costs (see 12 Feb 2008 post).

Sick days may decrease when obesity rates drop, but individuals may have less time to work if they go to the gym everyday. Also, it is highly unlikely the weight loss industry would disappear. Individuals are always unsatisfied with their bodies. Money saved on weight loss programs might now go towards plastic surgery or gym memberships.

Further, these figures do not take into account the utility loss people will incur not eating the foods they choose.

What would we do with all the money we saved from reduced obesity? Maybe we could celebrate with some bananas foster or Extraordinary Desserts.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this post–you raise good points. I enjoyed your perspective on how healthier diets will increase food costs.

    I’m a fellow blogger, and I took an interest in the MSN article while writing about obesity and the workplace for my blog at PayScale.com, The Salary Reporter. The link to my blog is included with this comment.

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