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Big Bucks on Obe$ity: Where They Could Be Better Spent

person eating a hamburger depicting obesityAt the 9th Annual Nutrition and Health Conference, Dr. David S. Ludwig, Harvard Professor and Director of the Optimal Weight for Life Clinic, discussed the economic impact of obesity on society.  Manifesting in the costs of resultant conditions like diabetes, pre-diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it teeters around $170 billion. At the rate this problem is escalating in the US, experts expect these economic costs to exceed $1 trillion by 2030.

For many of us, you might as well say a “kajillion.” The number is so large that it’s almost irrelevant to our reasonable minds. But perhaps if we saw how this monetary value could be realistically broken down for other causes, our society would be more inclined to tackle this largely preventable epidemic.  

Here are a few things we could do with the money otherwise spent on obesity:

  • Cover 4 years of college tuition for 19,537,355 students, at an average cost of $12,796 per year. That’s a lot of scholarships. In fact, this would cover tuition for every college student currently enrolled in the U.S., with money to spare, according to statistics in the U.S. Census.
  • Pay the cost of breast cancer treatments for over 47 million patients. Let me specify: it would pay for their intermittent cancer treatments over the course of 10 years, to ensure that the body was free of malignant cells. If we can’t cure cancer, perhaps we can fund the fight against it.
  • Feed over 600 million impoverished children 3 meals a day for 10 years, based on impact statistics from the Arlington Academy of Hope.  Consider it only takes $50 to feed one Ugandan child lunch for a year. At this rate, a trillion dollars could end hunger in an underdeveloped country.  
  • Cover one year of healthcare for 125 million people, or cover the healthcare costs of over 3 million people for their entire lives, according to figures given by the Department of Health and Human Services and Health Services Research.  
  • Pay for full disability for over 3 million wounded veterans for ten years, according to statistics outlined in CNN Money.   
  • Gift 300 million families with an all-expenses paid trip to the Happiest Place on Earth—Disney! That’s nearly three times as many families as live in the US. And I can’t even begin to count the projected number of Mickey Mouse sightings . . .
  • Cover the monthly operational costs of 417,000 animal shelters for 10 years, including food, vet bills, medication, rent, insurance, utilities, and staffing.
  • Pay for one-third of our war debt from the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, according to all-encompassing figures posed by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies’ research project “Costs of War.”  
  • Cover the cost of 250 billion gallons of gas (yes, even at $4 a pop) . . . or make significant headway in the research and development of alternative fuel sources, lessening our dependence on foreign oil.
  • Cover the cost of a five-year gym membership for 370 million people, shifting the focus from the problem to a potential solution.


  • Pay for up to 170 billion Big Mac meals from McDonalds, tax not included.  And, just to specify, that is equal to 192 trillion calories. Talk about a staggering number.

While it’s easy to downplay our own individual impression on society, this is a scenario in which our personal choices are having a serious collective impact on the economy. Where this money could otherwise be spent on education or creating jobs, it is perpetually tied up in healthcare for conditions stemming from excess weight.

But, while it might be more pragmatic to talk about the issue in terms of dollars rather than pounds, at the heart of this issue is our health. As much as this number could damage our wallets, it’s our bodies that bear the brunt of obesity. Implementing personal changes like diet and exercise, or federal changes like government-funded programs, however costly and inconvenient, are nothing compared to a life of illness or a trillion dollar price tag.

In the end, we can’t afford not to make a change.

Cited Sources

Ludwig, MD, PhD, David. "An Integrative, Family-Based Approach to Childhood Obesity." 9th Annual Nutrition and Health Conference. University of Arizona College of Medicine at the Arizona Health Sciences Center. Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, Boston. 16 April 2012. Lecture.

"Impact of your Gift." Arlington Academy of Hope. John Wanda, 2012. Web. 9 May. 2012. <http://aahuganda.org/donate/impact/>.

Alemayehu, Berhanu, and Kenneth E. Warner. "The Lifetime Distribution of Health Care Costs." Health Services Research. 39.3 (2004): 627–642. Web. 9 May. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361028/>.

Smith, Aaron. "A cost of war: Soaring disability benefits for Veterans." CNN Money [New York] 27 04 2012. Web. 9 May. 2012. <http://money.cnn.com/2012/04/27/news/economy/veterans-disability/index.htm>.

"Economic Costs Summary." Costs of War. Brown University: Watson Institute for International Studies, 2011. Web. 9 May. 2012. <http://costsofwar.org/article/economic-cost-summary>.

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