At the end of last week, the Milken Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank, released a report on the real economic costs of obesity and overweight in the United States. This report, unlike many estimates, includes both direct health care costs that are caused by obesity and overweight and indirect costs associated with lost productivity borne by patients and their employers. The total number is staggering: $1.72 trillion dollars each year.
Like all estimates of this sort, this figure is undoubtably wrong, as it is built on many assumptions and imperfect underlying data. However, its scale should serve as a wake-up call to health policymakers, especially those in a position to invest in preventative public health initiatives.
In the report’s executive summary, the Milken Institute’s authors write:
Because obesity and overweight are major risk factors for a broad range of chronic diseases, the increase in their prevalence across the nation has major implications for the health and wellbeing of the population. The burden of obesity, and the chronic diseases for which it is a contributing factor, has reached record economic heights. In 2016, chronic diseases driven by the risk factor of obesity and overweight accounted for $480.7 billion in direct health care costs in the U.S., with an additional $1.24 trillion in indirect costs due to lost economic productivity. The total cost of chronic diseases due to obesity and overweight was $1.72 trillion — equivalent to 9.3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). Obesity as a risk factor is by far the greatest contributor to the burden of chronic diseases in the U.S., accounting for 47.1 percent of the total cost of chronic diseases nationwide.
According to the report, obesity-driven costs from the top five contributors are as follows:
Diabetes (type 2)
Chronic back pain
Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia
Top 5 total
How accurate are these numbers? If we look at just one chronic disease affected by overweight and obesity — diabetes — we see that the Milken estimate of $335 billion in obesity-related total costs each year is higher than the American Diabetes Association’s estimate of $327 billion of annual economic cost for all Americans with diabetes. So the Milken Institute estimate is relatively high. We suspect the point of its report is not precision; rather, it is to paint a picture of the scale of the problem.
Separately, but also last week, healthcare policy analyst Dr. Paul H. Keckley authored a report entitled “The cost and impact of type 2 diabetes: policy recommendations for a growing public health epidemic.” (Note that this report was funded by Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., so it must be interpreted with caution.) The report states:
If 20% of the 30 million U.S. [type 2 diabetes] sufferers made this dietary change [to a low-carb diet] resulting in a HbA1c reduction of 1%, savings to the U.S. healthcare system would be at least $10.2 billion annually.
See the simple infographic, here.
In terms of policy imperatives, Keckley recommends low-carb-friendly changes to the Dietary Guidelines, as well as a public health education campaign designed to make citizens aware of “nutrition therapies that address diverse populations including pre-diabetics… and equip them to avoid nutritional advice that is misleading, contradictory and confusing.”
Now that sounds promising!
While we wait for policymakers to change official guidelines, feel free to share our site with friends and family. Our goal at Diet Doctor is to empower people everywhere to revolutionize their health.