The financial cost of obesity: A HealthCentral Explainer

SSuchy Editor
  • Much is made about the detrimental effects of obesity on personal health and wellness.  But not nearly as much attention is paid to what the spike in obesity is costing the country’s health care system or individual bank accounts, for that matter.


    In fact, it’s costing a lot, according to the latest F as in Fat report produced by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 


    Big, scary numbers


    The overall cost of adult obesity on the U.S. economy is almost impossible to calculate definitively.  The number must weigh a variety of factors, including direct medical cost, productivity loss, safety cost, and workers claim compensation, among other variables. 

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    But let’s consider the strictly medical costs of obesity.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) estimates it to be $147 billion and almost $210 billion per year.  Most of this comes from the money spent to treat the chronic illnesses that obesity causes, such as diabetes and high cholesterol. 


    Focus on diabetes


    Diabetes, for example, is not only the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., but it also costs the country about $174 billion in health care costs.  Of course, not all cases of diabetes are caused by obesity.  Type 1 diabetes, for example, is a genetic condition that cannot be prevented (or cured), regardless of what the individual does. But most of the diabetes cases in the country are type 2 diabetes—roughly 25 million cases.  And another 79 million Americans are pre-diabetic.  People who are pre-diabetic have elevated blood sugar levels that, if left unchecked, can easily become type 2 diabetes.


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    According to CDC projections, as many as one in three adults in the United States could develop type 2 diabetes by 2050, which would further inflate diabetes care costs.


    Breaking down direct medical costs


    Of the $147 billion spent on obesity--and this is the low-ball estimate)--Medicare and Medicaid covers about $61.8 billion of the cost.  As the country grapples with climbing health care costs, it’s interesting to note that if obesity were somehow eradicated, Medicare spending would decrease by 8.5 percent and Medicaid spending would drop 11.8 percent. 


    The remainder of the $147 billion spent on obesity comes from insurance companies and out-of-pocket expenses.  Ultimately, obese people will spend about 42 percent more in health care costs than healthy-weight people. 


    Beyond medical costs


    But the cost of obesity does not stop with the country’s health care system and insurance companies.  Employers also share in the cost burden through decreased worker productivity and increased absenteeism. 


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    The higher a person’s BMI becomes, the more sick days that person is likely to take and the more often they will visit the doctor.  For employers, this means that obese people will cost more to insure and will be less productive, on average, than someone with a lower BMI.


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    Putting numbers to the claim, CDC data finds that obese employees averaged $51,091 in medical claims costs per 100 full-time employees.  Workers of a healthy weight cost only  $7,503 per 100 full-time employees.  Furthermore, obesity-related job absenteeism costs $4.3 billion per year and decreased productivity while at work – known as ‘presenteeism’ – cost employers $506 per obese worker per year.


    The silver lining


    All said, the total cost of obesity is among the largest drains on the U.S. health care system.  The good news is that it does not have to be because obesity is completely preventable. 


    This year’s F as in Fat report included a projection of the impact of the average BMI in America being reduced by 5 percent by 2030.  That reduction, according to the CDC, could save each state between 6.5 percent and 7.8 percent in obesity-related health costs.




    Trust For America’s Health, F as in Fat 2012: How obesity threatens America’s future. Retrieved from:

Published On: September 25, 2012