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!

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