On The Imminent U.S. Health Crisis

“Based on the most recent census data there are 318 million Americans.

Of that, 77.4% (~246 million) are adults. Of those 246 million, ~40% are considered obese. This clocks in at 98.4 million people.

If we include overweight and obesity we are at 70% of the US adult population. So ~173 million people…”- Brad Dieter (sciencedrivennutrition.com)

Indeed, obesity runs rampant in the U.S., and issues are bound to follow. Over 100 million Americans risk losing their physical/mental health to obesity.

The obese often experience various conditions that impair daily function, for obesity strains the body’s bones/organs and increases disease risk, thus diminishing quality of life. I invite you to picture a world in which obesity is the norm.  

As the obese age, they become more likely to suffer from cancer, heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes, dementia, immobility, arthritis, depression, anxiety, or many of the above. Unfortunately, many obese people are also poor, thus lacking money to treat such conditions.

As such, many obese people will have some health condition throughout old age. However, many of these people won’t be able to care for themselves; their weight may render them immobile, disease may render them too weak, and financial insecurity might prevent them from receiving help.

Alas, obesity decreases worker productivity *and* increases medical expenses. Consequently, obesity is very costly. For example, a 2012 paper reported that obesity costs a total of 147-210 billion dollars per year in the U.S. alone.

So, imagine a population dismayed by obesity-induced health issues and financial constraints. Many people may: 1. be too heavy to move/play with their children, 2. feel exhaustion/pain daily, or 3. receive a devastating diagnosis. Further, those affected would live more stressful lives, stand unable to care for their loved ones, and/or die prematurely. Of course, nobody wants to live in this dystopia, yet our civilization keeps getting fatter.

Again, 98.4 million U.S. citizens are currently obese. Even if just 20% of this population experiences debilitating health effects, that’s almost 20 million people suffering unnecessarily.

For context, Dieter notes that associated diseases (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease) lag ~5-15 years behind obesity. Therefore, even if obesity rates plateau, the full health/financial burden will still take effect over future decades. All considered, it’s not surprising that healthcare spending is projected to account for ~50% of the GDP in the next 30 years.

I note the above to highlight a few points:

1. The increasing need for fitness/medical professionals and researchers. Simply, when many people seek treatment for their ailments (via coaching, direct care, etc.), others will need to help them. Additionally, more researchers will be needed to study diseases/find better treatments.

2. The rise of health inequality. Interestingly, many reading this are among the world’s healthiest people, but most are far less fortunate/dedicated to health. It seems like the “first world” is in need of a cultural renaissance; one that would invigorate passion toward health/fitness. Ultimately, for humans to thrive, society must value/promote health.

3. The need for an emphasis on the psychology of fitness, in addition to the physiology. Fitness often requires lifestyle change, and we need more research on what psychological factors drive people to change. Moreover, most people don’t need much nutritional/exercise knowledge to achieve their fitness goals. Thus, obesity isn’t primarily a problem of insufficient education. Rather, obesity manifests given inability to change habits over time, so psychological factors are really important.

4. The need for societal changes that disincentivize obesity. All told, I think most people realize obesity is a problem, whether or not they grasp its depth. If asked, most people probably don’t want to be obese. Therefore, it’s reasonable to think the modern food environment, work environment, and culture drive obesity, despite the fact that it’s not desired. Taxing processed foods, promoting exercise, and/or other policy changes may help eradicate obesity (see more here).

5. The need for individual responsibility/change. You need to take care of your body, lest you face disease and diminished quality of life, as many will in coming decades. With just a few basic lifestyle changes, you can substantially reduce your risk of obesity and its associated health burden/productivity-reducing effects. All you have to do is act; implementing diet, and exercise habits that promote health/weight loss, and/or seeking help from a fitness professional that can help you through the process.

6. Finally, this is pretty grave. Lots of people are going to suffer unnecessarily if things don’t change soon.