The high cost of being fat

I am fat.

I am fat, but I am not obese. I do not pause to catch my breath when climbing stairs. I do not avoid hikes or sports for fear of failure. But — no mistake — I am fat. I am far above my normal weight. I carry 205 pounds on a frame built for someone forty pounds lighter. [PDF: Body mass index and health, from the USDA.]

How does this relate to personal finance? Your health is your most important asset. Not your house. Not your car. Not your job. Not your retirement account. These are secondary. Your health is your most important asset. Even someone as young as I am (37) can face serious financial repercussions from being overweight.

According to the USDA, “overweight or obese people are more likely than those at normal weight to have medical problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease.” Furthermore:

According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, in 2003-2004, an estimated 66 percent of U.S. adults were overweight or obese, along with 17 percent of children and adolescents. The total annual cost of obesity was an estimated $117 billion in 2000.

Another USDA publication [PDF: “Health Insurance, Obesity, and Its Economic Costs”], breaks down the individual cost of being fat:

The lifetime medical costs related to diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, and stroke among the obese are $10,000 higher than among the non-obese. Among the overweight, lifetime medical costs can be reduced by $2,200 to $5,300 following a 10-percent reduction in body weight.

Being fat costs money. It costs time. (Overweight people have shorter lifespans.) And it costs mental capital, too. I have experienced these costs in my own life.

  • Four years ago, I destroyed the ACL in my right knee while playing city-league soccer. I was out of shape and overweight, and my body betrayed me. I spent six months hobbling around, unaware of the injury's extent. Ultimately, after several doctor's visits, I had an MRI, surgery, and physical therapy. Even with insurance, this was expensive, especially considering I hadn't yet wised-up financially. (Cost: roughly $2,000, and a loss of mobility in my right knee.)
  • Like many who are overweight, I suffer from sleep apnea. Last summer, I spent two nights in a sleep lab. I was given a prescription for a C-PAP machine. (Cost: $734.54, and that damned mask strapped to my face every night for the past year.)
  • When overweight, I suffer from mild depression. It afflicts my self-esteem and saps my will. (Cost: more mental than financial, thus far.)
  • Whenever I get heavy, I always join a gym. I pay for a year in advance, go for a couple weeks, and then gradually lose interest. Soon the guilt of having paid hundreds of dollars for a service I am not using becomes overwhelming, which makes matters worse. (Cost: Nothing out-of-pocket — paid by employer. I used to pay $300-$500/year.)
  • As I get bigger, I'm forced to buy new clothes. My wardrobe increases as I do. I tell myself that I'll have lots of clothes when I lose the weight, but so far I'm only buying new. (Cost: about $200/year.)
  • Ultimately I spend more on food to subsidize my fat than I do when I eat healthfully. I've never examined the actual costs, but I'm sure all the candy and chips and soda are a steady drain on my funds.

In the past four years, I have paid $4500 because I am fat. And that doesn't include food.

This post is not a pity party. It is a rallying cry for anyone who is out of shape, who has allowed their physical fitness to lapse. I know many adults who are at a healthy weight but who do not exercise. Just half an hour of exercise every day promotes better fitness. Regular physical activity reduces the risk of cancer and improves self-esteem. Just do it!

If you would like to pursue a course of fitness, here are some helpful tools.

  • Joe's Goals, a free online goal tracker.
  • FitDay, a free web-based diet and weight loss journal. I've used this on-and-off for several years. I recommend it.
  • The book that helped me defeat the fat in 1997 is Realities of Nutrition. It's fantastic. It doesn't try to convince you one diet is better than another. It lays out the facts about nutrition. It describes what carbohydrates are, what fat is, what protein is, and explains how they work in concert to give the body energy.
  • The 29 healthiest foods on the planet
  • The world's healthiest foods

When I stood on the scales on the evening of 07 May 1997, I was horrified. I weighed 200 pounds. I was 28 years old. How had I grown so heavy? I steeled my mind. Over the course of the next six months, I dedicated myself to eating healthy and exercising daily. I lost 42 pounds before falling off the wagon on Halloween night. Despite continued battles with food, for two years I remained fit. But then the weight came back.

I am ready to lose it again.

Extra Weight, Higher Costs

I've been working with Lauren Muney, a wellness coach (about which more later). This morning, Muney sent me a New York Times article by Damon Darlin which describes how extra weight leads to higher costs.

Being fat costs money — tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime. Heavy people do not spend more than normal-size people on food, but their life insurance premiums are two to four times as large. They can expect higher medical expenses, and they tend to make less money and accumulate less wealth in their shortened lifetimes. They can have a harder time being hired, and then a harder time winning plum assignments and promotions.

Darlin's article does a great job of summarizing the financial impact of being overweight. It's these financial costs (resulting from health problems) that most worry me about being fat. Many find fat people unattractive, but I'm not one of them: I was raised in a family where fat was the norm, and it does not bother me. But the health risks and the associated costs do bother me.

For example, Darlin cites a study from the University of Wisconsin which demonstrated that by supersizing a fast-food order (at an average cost of 67 cents) leads to $6.64 in future medical costs for an obese man, and $3.46 in future medical costs for an obese woman. Super-sizing does not save money.

Many people do find the overweight unattractive, and consciously or not, they treat them differently. There is a social cost to being fat. (More here.) Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that “weight bias”, discrimination against the obese, is at least as strong as race bias. (The article points to Harvard University's Implicit Association Test, where you can check your own internal biases.)

Studies have also demonstrated that there's a direct correlation between obesity and net worth. The heavier the person, the less they earn. My initial reaction is that it's impossible to determine which is the cause and which is the effect — does obesity lead to low net worth, or does low net worth lead to obesity? — but apparently this is a known problem with the research. Regardless, significant weight loss can lead to an increase in wealth.

A baby boomer whose [Body Mass Index (B.M.I.)] drops from 27.5, the middle of the overweight category, to 21.7, the middle of the normal category, sees an increase in wealth of $4,085.

Since first writing about my weight problem in October, I've made tremendous progress. This is largely due to Muney, a reader of this site. She wrote that because I had helped her make progress on her wealth, she'd like to help me make progress on my health. After working with her for a month, the results have been outstanding. I've lost weight. But more than that I feel great: my physical and mental well-being are the best they've been in years.

I look forward to continued progress, and to removing myself from the risks and costs associated with obesity. Right now, I'm going for a walk!

More about...Health & Fitness

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Kevin
Kevin
13 years ago

JD – Love your website. I have lost about 40 pounds in the last four months, using some of the tools you mention above (specifically FitDay). Keep at it, it’s nothing but hard work.

I also really like the approach of the “No S Diet” (www.nosdiet.com), although it’s probably not as “hard-core” as some of us type-As would like.

James
James
13 years ago

I am also Fat(but not really obese), I will join you!… I was reading an article the other day that being fat makes you dumber as well. I’m pretty sure McDonalds CheeseBurgers were invented to keep me poor, and from taking over the world…

Here’s to getting rich slowly and global domination!

Thanks for such a great website by the way, it has really helped put a lot of my poor financial planning and spending habits in perspective!

-James T

NLG
NLG
13 years ago

Nice post, very personal in nature. I think the key is to find some type of physical activity that keeps you interested, and motivated. For me, about 5-years ago I found ultimate frisbee… ok, the sport has a silly name, but the fundemantals are amazing. 1) You can start playing at any age, and with any skill/fitness level. 2) It is a non-contact sport, so there’s minimal risk of getting injured (no more than running in most cases) 3) There is a lot of running… but in recreational leagues, there is less running, you can take what you want from… Read more »

Stacy
Stacy
13 years ago

The problem is that the diet industry makes 40 billion dollars on something that does not work. Show me any long term study that shows that the majority of people lose more than 10% of their body weight, and are able to keep it off. That number is very very small, yet we pay billions to fit into societies ideal weight categories. Add to that fact that a lot of the problems “caused” by being overweight are now being attributed to other factors, namely poor diet, little exercise, and yo-yo dieting, and society has set up obese people to a… Read more »

Getting To Enough
Getting To Enough
13 years ago

I’ll add that another cost is the extra cost of life insurance (and probably disability insurance?). I wrote about this after finding out that if I lost 10 pounds, I would qualify for a rate that would save me $100/year.

Schizohedron
Schizohedron
13 years ago

Not sure where I got this link – Boingboing perhaps? – but it has some good info on tracking intake and weight loss with a lowly Excel sheet:

http://jeremy.zawodny.com/blog/archives/006836.html

Being fat myself and very much into changing that status, I hope you’ll keep us up to speed on your own progress so we can cheer you on.

Don
Don
13 years ago

I think the intro to “The Hacker’s Diet”, which is available for free online is very relevant: [There’s an old Wall Street tale: a tyro asks an old-timer, “How do you make money in the market.” The wise man answers, “Nothing could be simpler: buy low, sell high.” The beginner asks, “How can I learn to do that?” The sage responds, “Ahhhh…that takes a lifetime.” Simple doesn’t mean easy. There is no magic secret to losing weight and keeping it off, just as there is no hidden key to instant wealth. Nonetheless, every year another crop of “magic diet” and… Read more »

Him
Him
13 years ago

JD,

Your story is frighteningly like my own. I just tore my ACL last January playing soccer and had it reconstructed a few months ago. I was at 215 pounds. Since then I’ve lost 30 pounds and am playing soccer again, and am running my first 5K in a few weeks.

http://www.makelovenotdebt.com/2006/01/the_cost_of_good_health.php
http://www.makelovenotdebt.com/2006/04/recovering_from_surgery_ensure.php

I’ve tracked my calories using Fitday as well. For the excersie newbies who may also be geeks, you may want to try this neat web 2.0 program:

http://www.runfatboy.net/

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Thanks for the support, everyone.

The hardest thing for me is that — as with my finances before — I know what I should be doing, but often consciously choose the opposite. I understand sound nutrition, but I mostly choose to ignore it.

This was the same with my finances at one time.

Maybe I need to start a weblog called “Get Fit Slowly”. HA!

prlinkbiz
prlinkbiz
13 years ago

Getting in shape is the same thing as getting wealthy- it takes self discpline and hard work- but most people don’t want to hear that. It really is that easy- even if it isn’t that easy! JD- how about your train for something? You are good at working towards goals. Right now, I am training to run the PF Chang half marathon in Phz in January. I have a goal I’m working consistently towards, I have a couple friends running with me to keep me on track, and it helps all other areas of my life. Wanna run with us?… Read more »

icup
icup
13 years ago

““How can I lose weight?” “Simple, eat less food than your body burns.” “How can I learn to do that?” Read this book.” Or ‘try my diet’ which you can learn about by buying my book. Lots of people think the answer is ‘eat less food than your body burns’. That is not *quite* the answer, although it may work for you if you are more overweight. Its a good place to start, but the *real* answer is ‘diet and exercise’. And by diet I don’t mean the Atkins/southbeach/flavor-of-the-week, I mean diet in the sense of *the sum total of… Read more »

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

The first part of my comment is that I was very much like yourself, though I haven’t quite started noticing the cost of being overweight. Since I met my fiance I’ve managed to go from 235-240 to weighing 205 this morning. I’m still a bit overweight but what helped me more than going to the gym semi-regularily is the fact that my gym included a nutritionist. The simple facts that he imparted have definitely spurned my weight loss. At the beginning of the summer I weighed 220 and I haven’t gone on a gym craze or done anything drastic, just… Read more »

Don
Don
13 years ago

GAAAAAAH! Read my post icup!!!

The Hacker’s Diet is available for FREE. It was written by the founder of AutoDesk, best known for AutoCAD and has been available completely free since the early 1990’s.

Diet and exercise are the only natural ways to ‘eat less food than your body burns’…so, yeah, that’s the answer. Just hit the link and see what the guy has to say before you say it’s just like everything else…and before I have an aneurism…

icup
icup
13 years ago

Don, I thought I was agreeing with your post…

Catch Up Lady
Catch Up Lady
13 years ago

For me the key to losing weight is “getting on the bandwagon”. Once I develop a work out routine I find it much easier to eat healthier and do other small things – it helps with my overall motivation. Gym buddies are also great, sometimes you need someone to drag you there! JD, I read this article recently that many Americans chose not to act on nutritional information (http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/news/ng.asp?n=71361&m=1FNUO17&c=tqxekbtsdixmbvv) which was a real eye opener. A lot of times we need more than just knowing something is bad to help is avoid it! I try to stay pretty even keel… Read more »

jengod
jengod
13 years ago

The best thing I’ve found for fitness is to not engage in pointless exercise during what should be your leisure–just exert more effort doing things you would otherwise:

1. Go to work, but walk or bike instead of driving.
2. Go to the mall, but park at the far end of the lot and walk to the doors.
3. Visit your allergist on the 12th floor of the medical building, but take the stairs instead of the elevator.

jengod
jengod
13 years ago

P.S. If you use the personalized Google homepage, check out “the Google 15” module.

Don
Don
13 years ago

Hehe…sorry…I got bent out of shape. I just don’t think the Hacker’s Diet falls into the whole “buy my book–try my diet” money-making scheme. It explains dieting and exercise in a thoughtful way, which was very helpful to me. So I got defensive…

I also find the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines helpful:

http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines/

I’d subscribe to “Get Fit Slowly”, JD…there’s plent of material to cover there.

Stephanie
Stephanie
13 years ago

Ouch! That hits home! Thanks!

icup
icup
13 years ago

oh, i see what you mean. I originally read that as the Hacker’s Diet book was an alternative to the whole “try-my-diet-buy-my-book mentality”, and I clumsily tried to add my two cents about the mentality, not that book. totally my bad.

Also, to the person who mentioned having a ‘gym buddy’. I think this is ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL to a gym membership. You don’t even have to do the same things at the gym. You just have to have somebody who drags you there when you don’t feel like going and vice -versa

tylerwillis
tylerwillis
13 years ago

I’ve been using

http://www.thedailyplate.com

to track calories and fitness stuff. 6 months ago, I was an overweight 210 – now I’m around 180 – in the normal zone, but borderline.

Dennis Scanland
Dennis Scanland
13 years ago

I think overweight, especially obese, people need to pay higher health insurance (I live in Canada). It might be enough to make at least some of them change their expensive habits (making it more expensive).

Melsky
Melsky
13 years ago

I’ve been going to a gym for exactly two months and have made a lot of progress. It really helps that the gym is two blocks from my house, it’s easy to go. My husband is also going to a gym near his work and doing very well. Having a spouse go on a weight loss program at the same time is a huge motivator. I agree that spending/saving habits and eating/exercise habits are closely related. They say you shouldn’t check your investments too often so you won’t obsess on the day to day fluxuations, and the same for weighing… Read more »

Marcus M. Hudson
Marcus M. Hudson
13 years ago

On the other side of the coin however…

“Thin people are beautiful, but fat people are adorable.”

— Jackie Gleason

Cheers,

Marcus

Beck
Beck
13 years ago

Thanks for the post! It inspired me to ride my bike in today.

Alan Bluehole
Alan Bluehole
13 years ago

I am riding my bike to downtown on T-R each week, where I put it on the bus for the rest of the trip to work. Then I ride the whole trip home (which is mostly downhill, but still about 12 miles). I have also stopped drinking more than one beer per day. If I have a second glass, it’s wine. Now we eat out once per week instead of 3-4, like we did this past summer. I have gone in one month from 195 to 188 and I feel so much better! I have about 20 lbs. to go.… Read more »

Robert Nagle
Robert Nagle
13 years ago

Screw gyms! too expensive and inconvenient.

Buy some basic exercise equipment (exercise ball, exercise step, resistance bands, a pair of 5 pound weights). Buy 4 or 5 exercise vids (see my own recommendations . With all that, you’re talking about about $100 investment–for a cardio/strength solution that you can do anywhere–with instructions from a highly qualified trainer.

DivaJean
DivaJean
13 years ago

“Four years ago, I destroyed the ACL in my right knee while playing city-league soccer. I was out of shape and overweight, and my body betrayed me.” Like no skinny person has ever injured their knees… How many times has it been said that exercise- even just 1/2 hour of walking per day- is the biggest indicator of health?!? Sporadic weekend warrior activity is the surest way to injury. “When overweight, I suffer from mild depression. It afflicts my self-esteem and saps my will.” This is from lack of exercise- not size. Get off your duff and into the sunshine.… Read more »

Rohit
Rohit
13 years ago

I am fat too, and your post has inspired me to do something about it. Thanks, J.D.!

Lynn
Lynn
13 years ago

I’m with you, JD. I joined Weight Watchers 3 weeks ago (-7 lbs). I enjoy it and am more apt to follow that than something online – though I do use their online tools. I prefer to work out at home (every other day) with my DVDs, weights, etc. The cost of the gym is just not something I’m interested in taking on right now. Also, I’m walking 3 or 4 miles on the non DVD days. This is a good fit for me right now as I work back into shape. Also, I played in a softball tournament a… Read more »

Lynn
Lynn
13 years ago

PS, My mom read somewhere that overweight people cause their car to get worse gas mileage! EGADS!

Adeel
Adeel
13 years ago

I hope you loose weight and reading the whole article i agree perfectly that it is a mental thing more of than a physical thing and its that thing that stops you in your path not now and then but everytime, i want to say more but i would just say that thankyou for sharing.

Adeel

Dr. Pam
Dr. Pam
13 years ago

And while you may not want to believe it the medical care you get is actually WORSE the fatter you are. A doctor cannot feel your liver or spleen if you are fat, a breast lump (for women) is more difficult to pick-up on manual exam and subtle heart sounds can be muffled. Medical doses are all calculated for “normal” weight people and often don’t get corrected for the obese. Some tests aren’t even available to patients who are very obese: for example breast MRI (a very sensitive imaging technique) is not offered at our hospital to women over 300… Read more »

Anne Trauben
Anne Trauben
13 years ago

JD, Losing weight is a wonderful goal and it happens most easily when one makes slow and gradual healthful lifestyle changes. It’s important to transition from the Standard American Diet to eating whole food, to be more healthful, decrease cravings and create options, yet not become obsessive about food, because losing weight involves more than the food one eats. It’s important to look at all areas of one’s life and how that person nurtures themself, because when one doesn’t feel nurtured (poor quality relationships, unhappy with the job, high stress, etc) one may use food to fill in the gaps… Read more »

samerwriter
samerwriter
13 years ago

Awesome post; I lost 60 pounds over 6 months about 5 years ago, and have managed to keep it off without draconian diets with regular exercise (cycling).

This aspect of personal finance is too commonly overlooked. The financial costs (short-term and long-term) are very real.

dimes
dimes
13 years ago

Aww, Harvard says I hate fat people. Harvard is on the money. It seems like there’d be other factors too than just weight and wealth, like education and physical/mental activity. I doubt you could ever determine causality. I believe that for some people, obesity is a physical manifestation of mental defect, and I’m not talking about Prader-Willi syndrome or any other hypothalamus disorder. Three of the seven deadly sins connotate fatness. But anyway, that’s all a can of worms I’m not about to delve into, but maybe someone will read your blog, see this comment, and perform research that leads… Read more »

Xeelee
Xeelee
13 years ago

Now, that’s in the US mostly and could be applied to most other first world country out there. But for developing countries it’s a completely different story. Most people are lightly obese or overweight, and most of those who are obese/overweight are in the upper echelons of society.

The poor basically can’t get enough food to even stop being underweight.

Charlie Park
Charlie Park
13 years ago

JD – Congratulations on the weight loss, and on the corresponding mental boost. That’s the kind of commitment it’s easy to make, but hard to follow through on. Keep it up!

Also, I wanted to say that Damon Darlin is the man.

David Spelts
David Spelts
13 years ago

With regards to the social costs of obesity, there may be other factors involved such as lower energy levels and more sick days.

Emily H.
Emily H.
13 years ago

Some reasons why this may work the other way:

-Among cultural/ethnic groups that historically have had lower socioeconomic status, cooking methods like deep-frying became widely used because they made the cheapest cuts of meat, like chicken feet, more palatable.

-People with lower incomes may have to work more hours, increasing their reliance on fast food rather than healthier home-cooked meals.

-The produce at grocery stores in low-income areas is, to put it bluntly, skeezy. Organic produce and gym memberships are upper-middle-class priviledges.

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

BMI is a weak indicator of physical fitness and health, and that chart is a weak indicator of the effect obesity has on net worth. It would be much more informative to compare net worth vs. BMI for people with similar jobs, education, race, marital status. The only way to tell how much body mass matters is to make body mass the only variable in the comparison. Social science can’t necessarily find cause and effect, but it CAN do better than that chart. For whatever it’s worth, I’m not in the age cohort of that graph (5 years too young)… Read more »

NLG
NLG
13 years ago

This article is interesting, but obviously as with any research must be taken subjectively. The work shows that there is a positive correlation between a person’s net worth and their BMI. BMI is somewhat flawed, a body-builder will likely have a high BMI, but will be healthy. However, there are far, far, far fewer body-builders than there are obese persons in the industrialized world, so the BMI scale is not skewed by them. Furthermore, the study does not seem to account for socio-economic factors, it is a simplistic study. It is true that lower-income people have a more positive correlation… Read more »

Carrie
Carrie
13 years ago

I am researching the cost of being obese now (thanks for all the great info in this forum), it’s amazing. We haven’t even touched on the big stuff like scooters ($5,000), special furniture, bigger vehicles, the airlines trying to charge for an extra seat.

I’m with the commenters who say “choose an activity you enjoy and you will stick to it”. Mine is cycling, I just love it.

kingking
kingking
13 years ago

As an RN in the operating room, I’d like to thank those posters who are trying to lose weight. As the American population has “blossomed”, surgery has become much more risky for the patient and the health care worker. Necessary steps such as starting an IV, inserting an endotrachial tube, and moving patients from stretcher to OR table are all infinitely more difficult with an overweight or obese patient. We have OR tables in our facility that will accomodate people weighing 1000 lbs! And we use them! In addition, fatty tissue doesn’t heal as well as lean muscle, possibly leading… Read more »

K
K
13 years ago

This is very interesting. I would have to say though that poverty does tend to bring on weight gain. -People go on government assistance and in most states, that controls what you can and can’t buy. Premium foods are not available in many states on their assistance programs, leading to a less healthy lifestyle. -Stress is high for poor people, which leads to weight gain. -Poor people don’t have the money to spend on gyms. -The poor tend to be undereducated, and being educated about what foods are good and which are bad is part of that. Some people probably… Read more »

Scotty
Scotty
12 years ago

JD, I agree with you that your health is your most important asset. I decided to take control of my body on 9/19/07. In just 4 months, I have gone from 28% body fat to 11% body fat and look and feel great.

I have chronicled my weight loss with weekly pics, food logs, etc. Check it out here…

http://www.scottysbody.com

TERESA
TERESA
12 years ago

Read this, there are many good ideas how to lose unwanted weight:

http://healtyblog.blogspot.com/

Natalie
Natalie
12 years ago

I am fat too… and guess what, I’ll be fat for the rest of my life. My fat doesn’t cost me. Not anymore. I stopped yo-yo dieting, and stopped believing the lies of a 43 billion dollar industry. When I dieted, I did have to constantly buy clothes, I was forever sick, and I was forever stressed. I’ve maintained my weight consistently for 7 years. I still wear the same size. I keep active and I eat heart-healthy foods, and on occasion, I lose some, and on occasion, I gain some, but I don’t stress over my weight. Doctors seem… Read more »

Steve Anderson
Steve Anderson
11 years ago

“There are worst things in this world than being fat.”

No there’s not!!!!

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