Weighty problem clogging U.S. health insurance

Americans are living large — and health officials say it is costing them their health and savings.

One-third of the American population is obese. Another third is overweight.

“It’s more than double what it was 30 years ago,” said Jason Eberhart-Phillips, state health officer and director of health at the Kansas Department of Health and Education.

Eberhart-Phillips said the consequences of the nation’s widening waistline are serious: an increase in the risk of hypertension, High cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gall bladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, respiratory problems and cancers of the endometrium, breast, prostate gland and colon.

“As obesity goes up, it drives up long-term health conditions and puts a burden on all of us through taxes and health insurance costs,” he said. “Society is using more and more of its treasure to treat these conditions.”

Kate Watson, manager for the diabetes prevention and control program with Bureau of Health Promotion at KDHE, said diabetes is one of the most common and costly chronic health conditions in Kansas.

In Kansas, 8.1 percent of adults — about 170,000 people — have been diagnosed with diabetes and nearly 113,000 more have diabetes but are undiagnosed. In the past five years, 35,000 Kansans were newly diagnosed.

Treating diabetes costs the United States $174 billion a year — and Kansas $1.56 billion a year. If the diabetes treatment industry were its own country, Eberhart-Phillips said, it would be the 45th-largest economy in the world.

“The economic burden of diabetes in Kansas amounts to a tax on every woman, man and child in the state of about $566 per year, a tax that has been increasing by 32 percent in the past six years,” Eberhart-Phillips said.

“All of us are paying this tax, whether we have diabetes or not, through our health insurance premiums and income taxes. Even if our health insurance is paid by our employer, this ‘diabetes tax’ is coming out of our own pockets through wage increases that we aren’t getting because of escalating insurance premiums.”

Watson said the state could save $32 million a year if 3,000 people with undiagnosed diabetes could be identified and admitted to a lifestyle modification program.

The cause

So, how did Americans get so fat? What has changed to cause obesity rates to skyrocket?

“Diseases are either due to genetics or the environment, or the interaction between the two,” Eberhart-Phillips said. “A person’s genes don’t change, so it must be the environment that is changing.


— Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.

— Diabetes is the most-common disease associated with obesity. In Kansas, 8.1 percent of adults - about 170,000 people - have been diagnosed with diabetes and nearly 113,000 more have diabetes but are undiagnosed.

— In the past five years, 35,000 Kansans were newly diagnosed with diabetes.

— Treating diabetes costs Kansas an estimated $1.56 billion a year.

— One in three children born in 2000 is expected to develop type 2 diabetes. They will be the first generation to have shorter life spans than their parents.

Source: Kansas Department of Health and Environment


Body mass index is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. A person with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher indicates obesity.

“It’s simple,” he added. “It’s too much food and too little activity to burn it.”

In prehistoric times, Eberhart-Phillips said, people would gorge on high-energy food because they knew it would be a long time before they might see that kind of food again. He believes the “primitive brain” still kicks in at times, telling people they must have a hamburger and fries even though they aren’t hungry and know the food will be available the next day.

Likewise, Americans today, who live a more sedentary lifestyle, don’t need as much food to fuel their bodies as their ancestors who worked on farms or at more labor-intensive jobs.

Eberhart-Phillips said Americans only need to watch a few sitcoms from the 1980s to realize body weight is moving upward.

Is there a danger the standard for weight will shift and obesity become the norm?

“Our cultural perspective of what is normal is changing,” he said.

Back on track

To reduce the nation’s obesity problem, the environment that created it must change. That means revising diets, exercising more and adopting new policies.

Eberhart-Phillips said about 95 percent of new diabetes cases are type 2, which typically appears in adults and is preventable.

“If we can help every overweight Kansan to lose just 10 to 20 pounds, and keep the weight off permanently, we can slash the increase in new cases of diabetes by 60 percent.”

Eberhart-Phillips recommends:

n Limiting the consumption of sugary beverages and junk foods from vending machines in schools. Senate Bill 499, introduced this year, would require all vending machines in schools to meet the “exemplary,” or strictest, standard of the Kansas wellness policy. Currently, 3 percent of schools meet that standard.

While in favor of supporting efforts to reduce childhood obesity, some legislators believe what is offered in school vending machines shouldn’t be determined by those at the Statehouse.

“My approach has been to encourage buy-in at the local level for policy changes that promote better food choices and more physical exercise,” said Sen. Jim Barnett, R-Emporia, who is a physician.

n Requiring all restaurants to put nutrition labels on menus. The recently passed health reform bill requires chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets to disclose the number of calories on their menus or menu boards. A bill regarding menu labeling, Senate Bill 505, was introduced to the Kansas Legislature this year.

n Modifying policies regarding land use to reshape the “built environment” to allow more physical activity.

n Strengthening access to healthy foods, such as providing subsidies to farmer’s markets to lower the cost of fresh products.

Tanda Kidd, assistant professor and nutrition specialist at Kansas State University Research and Extension, said the price of junk food — chips, soda and cookies — has dropped while the cost of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products has risen.

Consequently, a single mother with three children is more likely to buy hot dogs, buns, chips and soda — less than $2.50 a person per meal — than frozen broccoli that costs $1 a pound and chicken breast priced at $3.59 a pound.

“It’s very easy to look at someone’s diet and say, ‘Just make things change,’ ” she said. “The reality of it is many of the things we encourage appear to cost more for the consumer.”

Jan Biles can be reached at (785) 295-1292 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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