Blogs & Comment

Obesity is officially a disease, so let’s cure it: Elaine Chin

Need motivation? Look at the price tag.

(Photo: Stewart Cohen/Getty Images)

(Photo: Stewart Cohen/Getty Images)

According to the American Medical Association, we can now call obesity what it is—a disease. It’s a declaration that has everyone from doctors to comedians opining on what it means. Comic and TV show host Bill Maher recently quipped, “Wow, people are already taking advantage of this. They’re calling in sick with a case of the ‘fats’.” But obesity is hardly a laughing matter—and it takes a real toll on workplace productivity.

To call it a big problem would be an understatement. According to StatsCan (see table by province), 18% of Canadians report they are obese (defined as a Body Mass Index greater than 30) and 34% say they are overweight (BMI 25-30). This suggests half the country has a weight issue. A formal study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information reported a figure of 62%. This means almost 13 million Canadians are of an unhealthy weight, and between three and just over five million Canadian adults are obese, depending on the method of calculation.

What’s the financial cost?

There’s a price to all of this: Obesity costs the Canadian economy between $4.6 billion to $7.1 billion annually, split evenly between direct health-care costs and indirect costs such as lost productivity when people unable to work either because of disability or because they are unable to find employment due to discrimination.

And consider these numbers from a study entitled “A Heavy Burden: The Individual Costs of Being Overweight and Obese in the United States,” published by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services:

>       $4,879—that’s the amount an obese woman in the U.S. could cost a company every year in overall tangible annual costs.

>      It’s estimated her obese male counterpart can cost a company $2,656.

>       Individuals who are morbidly obese (BMI >35) represent 37% of the obese population but are responsible for 61% of excess costs.

Direct employer costs include medical costs, short-term disability, disability pension insurance, absenteeism, and productivity losses. Studies estimate that nearly 10% of U.S. corporate health care costs are due to obesity and its complications. For a large company like Dow, that means tens of millions of dollars a year. On top of that is lost productivity, not just from doctor’s appointments and sick days but also, as research suggests, because obese workers are simply less efficient on the job.

According to a study by the University of Cincinnati, these “workers experienced a 4.2% health-related loss in productivity,” or up to $506 per worker per year in lost productivity.

What’s the health toll?

Obesity significantly increases the risk of at least 18 chronic diseases beginning with the big three killers—heart disease and stroke, diabetes and cancer. Adding to this list is liver and gall bladder disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis.

Almost 45% of morbidly obese Canadians and 27% of the obese suffer from cardiovascular disease compared to 8% of people of normal weight. Sixteen per cent of overweight Canadians have heart trouble.

Where we are

Employers need to get involved with their employees to help address this epidemic. They could see significant savings and improved productivity if they introduce efforts to reduce the prevalence of obesity, especially among those with a BMI over 35.

Sadly, too many companies have paid the problem little more than lip service with passive “lunch and learn” programs which offer little or no motivation to change. At the very least, introducing an outsourced weight-loss program would be a start. Human Resources departments must stop believing that reducing the incidence of obesity amongst its employees is a matter of personal lifestyle choice. It’s an illness that affects the company’s bottom line. That’s why the AMA decision is so important: insurance providers, corporate wellness champions and doctors all need to rethink what more they can do to combat North America’s obesity epidemic.

Obesity is not just a simple issue that will go away by applying ‘willpower’. It’s complicated because there are biological and psychological variables to be addressed. As a society our bodies are now trained to love sugar, salt and fat. Food companies have discovered how to match their products to hit our ‘bliss point’ (read “Sugar, Salt, Fat” by Michael Moss for more). We have to overcome these chemical addictions, which require conscious behavioural modification to stay away from processed foods, and to begin eating healthy and getting active to burn off the excess weight.

What to do

My advice to business is to pay attention to obesity. It’s affecting your profits.

1.     Find a CFO who will lead—a Chief Fitness Officer, not a bean counter!

2.     Get informed about the issue—what’s the impact in your workplace?

3.     Be serious about workplace healthy programs. They must target all employees—not just the converted few—and they must include measurable metrics (weight, blood pressure, steps, sleep, blood work, sugar and cholesterol control) tracked over a long enough period (8-12 weeks) so as to see observable behavioural change.

4.     Offer support and encouragement— have only fresh and healthy food in the cafeteria and avoid coffee and donuts at meetings. Have contests amongst departments to make the initiative fun.

5.     Get help—learning to eat better and exercise are new skills and a coach can’t hurt. Provide access to reputable professionals to work on healthy lifestyle behaviours—physicians, naturopathic doctors, dieticians, trainers, and cognitive therapists.

Dr. Elaine Chin is the Chief Medical Officer of the Executive Health Centre. Her clinic was the
first in North America to offer genetics testing and now tests telomere length as well.