AUGUSTA — Obesity is a drag. Not just on our health, but also on our economy.

Statistics show that nearly two-thirds of adults in this country are overweight, and of these, close to half qualify as obese. 

In Maine, more than 63 percent of adults are either obese or overweight, according to the latest national obesity study from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

With so many Americans carrying extra pounds, the reverberations are being felt economically across the country. Consider these facts:

Medical spending for obese people is 42 percent higher than for those at normal weight.

The annual health care cost of obesity in America has doubled in less than a decade, and is estimated to be as high as $147 billion a year.

Obesity-related medical expenses account for nearly 10 percent of total annual U.S. health care costs.

Sadly, this isn’t a problem that will simply go away. In the past three decades, child obesity rates have more than tripled, making almost one-third of American children either overweight or obese.

The number of states with 40 percent or more young adults considered overweight or obese has risen from two states to 43 in the past decade, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, Maine did not have far to go; it went from 38 percent overweight or obese to 44 percent.

If anyone thinks this somehow does not affect our state’s health care costs, they are sadly mistaken.

Obesity already costs U.S. businesses $13 billion annually in health insurance claims, paid sick leave and disability and life insurance. And with roughly 80 percent of overweight children expected to become obese, we should not expect to see the health care costs of obesity abating anytime soon.

Clearly, we need to make dramatic changes, and we need to begin by improving how our children eat and exercise. School is an excellent place to start, since many children receive as much as half of their daily calorie intake during school hours. 

Right now, the majority of meals served at our nation’s public schools do not meet nutrition standards, mostly because of inadequate funding.

Last year, Congress – including support from Maine’s entire delegation – took a step in the right direction with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This legislation provides the framework to revolutionize what foods are served and sold in schools.

But there is a problem. School cafeterias operate on extremely tight budgets, and many schools lack the resources to replace outdated kitchen equipment and train cafeteria workers on the best ways to prepare healthier meals.

To address these issues, Congress can support schools in two areas:

First, help schools upgrade kitchen equipment. Some cafeterias only have the capacity to reheat pre-packaged food. Other schools rely on deep-fat fryers and lack equipment to prepare healthy foods. Without the right equipment to prepare healthy meals and avoid food safety risks, many schools will make only marginal progress under the new law.

Second, help train cafeteria workers in healthy cooking methods like roasting and baking so they can move away from microwaving and deep-frying.

Congress would be wise to support the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the department develops science-based meal standards to raise the quality of food and drinks served in our schools. It’s crucial to our children’s health – and our long-term economic health as well – that the promise of the new child-nutrition legislation is fulfilled.

I’ve made a career out of supporting and advocating for Maine businesses, and I understand that managers, owners and executives look at the balance sheets every day and make decisions based on their bottom lines. And I know that businesses cannot continue to absorb, through rising health insurance premiums, the deep costs of obesity.

That’s why I support helping our schools meet new nutritional guidelines. We should be smart with our money: Washington can pay now to fight childhood obesity, or we can all pay much more later. It’s not just good for our kids. It’s also good for our economy.

 

– Special to The Press Herald