Obesity’s Burgeoning Burden on Employers

America is fat and getting fatter. It’s hard to be more than a block from a fast food franchise unless you’re deep sea diving or mountain climbing.

The subliminal message is: How bad can it be?

Any child can walk into a burger joint and purchase 1,200 calories of cooked animal fat for pocket change. The child doesn’t even need to show ID or a parental permission slip. As a society, we seem to be saying a big, sloppy, cholesterol-laden cheeseburger is much safer than cigarettes, driving, PG-13 movies or beer.

Is it really? And why should employers care? Because you have to spend a couple extra dollars on XXL uniforms?

Obesity in the workplace has a much more profound effect on the company than just a few extra dollars for uniform fabric.

Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. We medical types use something called the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is a measurement of a person’s weight to height. The higher the BMI, the more overweight a person is. The standard definition of weight class is:

• BMI of 25 or less – normal weight
• BMI of 25 to 30 – overweight
• BMI over 30 – obese

Obesity is among the most common of medical conditions in the United States. Close to 75 percent of our population is overweight or obese. Unfortunately this high-risk condition of being overweight is rapidly becoming “normal” in this country.

Obesity, the more serious condition, occurs in more than 25 percent of the population. The care associated with obesity is thought to be more expensive than that caused from smoking cigarettes or alcoholism.

Employers get hit from several directions with the burden of obesity. In this country, the employer partly or mostly pays health insurance, and the costs associated with obesity make this an increasingly expensive proposition.

It’s well known being overweight or obese is associated with much higher risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. The added strain of carrying around this extra weight also takes its toll on the joints and spine. Chances of osteoarthritis of the knees, hips and back are greatly increased.

Add up all this extra disease and the total cost of obesity is well over $100 billion per year. And we wonder why our insurance premiums continue to go up.

If the direct medical costs of obesity don’t break an employer’s back, the injury rates among obese employees just might. Employees having a BMI over 40 file twice as many workers’ compensation claims and have 12 times more lost work days from these work injuries.

 Repetitive motion injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome and tendonitis in various joints are also more common. Obesity is even a risk factor for workplace violence.

Treatment for obesity has historically been fraught with failure. The sheer caloric load stored in a significantly overweight person is impressive. A pound of fat holds about 9,000 calories, so a person who is 50 lbs. overweight has a reserve of almost 500,000 calories to burn.

Since it’s difficult to keep the body burning an extra 1,000 calories a day, it takes quite awhile to make a dent in the fat calories. This makes it imperative to concentrate on the effort of maintaining normal body weight. Like most problems in life, prevention is easier and less expensive than repair.

For those who are already obese, only a long-term strategy has much chance of success. The person has to stop adding weight and stop adding to the problem. This can be an effort in itself, but it’s a prerequisite for success.

Once weight gain is stopped, activity and intake can be calculated to make some progress on the fat storage issue. Real progress on this is something that is measured in months and years, not weeks.

On that note, maybe I’ll skip that cheeseburger and fries for lunch.

Take care,

Dr. B

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