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February 23, 2008

Cost is but one worry of obesity


So now there's a new study that says obesity doesn't really cost society as much as we've been led to believe.

The Dutch study, published online Feb. 5 in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal, found that it actually costs more in the long run to care for healthy people than people who smoke or are obese _ because the healthy people live longer.

Using a simulation model to estimate lifetime health-care costs for the three groups, researchers found that the smokers and obese people had more heart disease than the "healthy-living" group (people who had never smoked and were not overweight), and the obese people racked up the highest health-care bills until age 56.

However, the healthy people lived 41/2 years longer than the obese people (and seven years longer than the smokers), and the health-care costs they incurred during those extra years, including nursing and home care, made their lifetime health-care expenditure the highest.

The study raises some interesting questions: Is giving up a Big Mac addiction worth an extra 41/2 years of life? Why should governments invest in obesity-prevention programs if a healthier population will end up costing them more? The issues are complex, but there is one simple common denominator: quality of life.

We should encourage people to eat well and exercise because it's the right thing to do, not because it might save society money. We should create a culture that is supportive of healthy habits, because healthier people are happier and more productive. (Even the study authors admit that their research doesn't account for the indirect costs of obesity, such as lower productivity).

We should also combat the behaviors that lead to obesity because they have other negative consequences besides their effect on our health. Our national addiction to processed junk food isn't good for our environment or our local businesses and farmers.

We're lucky in this area to have a variety of farm stands and farmers' markets "" and a new group working to promote sustainable living in Otsego County "" but, nevertheless, the majority of the food in our supermarkets is shipped hundreds or thousands of miles.

The culture that has led to the obesity epidemic has created more opportunities for us as consumers: not just of unhealthy processed foods but also of products promising to "undo" the damage caused by munching on these foods while watching the latest NetFlix double feature: diet pills and bars and drinks; exercise DVDs and equipment and gym memberships "¦ It's an endless cycle that only benefits the entertainment moguls and the CEOs of the food conglomerates.

Adults are free to make their own lifestyle choices, but kids are at the mercy of their environment. We need to give them a fair chance to be healthy by making milk and fresh fruits and vegetables as available and affordable as chips and soda, and by investing in communities where the parks, pools, bike paths and skating rinks outnumber the movie theaters and fast-food restaurants.

Mostly, we should fight obesity because it just makes sense. Our bodies were meant to move, not sit in front of screens all day long. Our bodies were meant to be fueled by whole foods: foods we can grow or raise ourselves; food we can recognize, not freeze-dried, preservative-fortified lab experiments.

I'm not talking about a revolution. Candy bars and frozen dinners will always be parts of the American diet "" and that's fine, as long as they don't completely replace the whole foods we know we need. Computers and cell phones have become necessary parts of life, and that's fine, too "" as long as we're not so busy Web surfing and text messaging that we forget to go for a walk or take our kids to the park.

If things continue as they are "" according to the projections, half of U.S. adults will be obese by 2025 "" the war on obesity might become an issue of national security. With at least half of our citizens being treated for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea and other obesity-related conditions, it may take the other half just to staff the health-care system.

And instead of being known as the world's biggest superpower, we'll just be the world's biggest.

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Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.