Economics of Obesity in Children and Adolescence





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Medically speaking, not all overweight people are obese. Obesity is defined as weight that exceeds 15 percent of normal weight for height and body type. "Morbid" obesity exceeds 20 percent of optimum weight. The long-term health implications are well known, in fact, obesity is considered an outright disease. An obese person is at high risk for a number of serious health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, varicose veins, psychological stress, osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

While obesity is clearly a health threat, we should not lose sight of the fact that we need fat to stay healthy. Body fat performs many vital functions: fat provides readily accessible energy during short periods of fasting and it serves a structural component of organs, the nervous system, the brain, and muscles. We require fat in the diet to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins: vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Overeating and lack of exercise are the principle behavioral factors that lead to obesity. As technology and transportation dominate the 21st century, lifestyles have become increasingly sedentary. Societal pressure to produce and succeed leaves less time to plan and prepare wholesome meals. Add the ever-present ads for processed, high fat, high-sugar junk foods, and it is easy to see why obesity is so commonplace.

Recently published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers investigated the economic burden of obesity and obesity-related diseases in our children. Data from the National Hospital Discharge Survey, 1979 to 1999, was used to analyze changes in obesity diseases as well as the financial costs in children ages 6 to 17 years. The results of this study showed that there was an increase in the percentage of discharges due to obesity-related illnesses. Discharge due to Diabetes nearly doubled from 1979 to 1999, while sleep apnea increased fivefold. Annual hospital costs associated with obesity-related diseases in children increased from $35 million to $127 million. The authors concluded that, "This increase has led to a significant growth in economic costs. These findings may reflect the impact of increasing prevalence and severity of obesity. Diet and physical activity interventions should be developed for weight loss and prevention of weight gain in youths."1


1. Wang G, Dietz W. Economic Burden of Obesity in Youths Aged 6 to 17 Years: 1979-1999. Pediatrics. May 2002;109(5):81.