Panelists Discuss Economic and Health Implications of America’s Weight Issue

Feb 26, 2014
By Co-Communications (Danielle Cyr)

In 1960, fewer than 30% of U.S. adults were overweight or obese. Fast forward 54 years and America finds itself facing projections that almost half of all U.S. adults will be obese 15 years from now if something doesn’t change. Locally, just over 25% of Connecticut’s population is obese, ranking us 12th in the nation. It’s a health problem, an economic problem and one facing employers, insurers and the community at large.

On Friday, February 21st Diane Smith, Co-Author, Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction and My Own; Marlene Schwartz, Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University; Dr. Garth Graham, President, Aetna Foundation/Former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health; and, Donna Laliberte O’Shea, MD, MBA, Medical Directo for the Healthier Lives Model of Care at UnitedHealthcare took the stage at The Bushnell to discuss ‘A Weighty Issue’ and the implications of America’s unhealthy relationship with food on society. The lively discussion examined how obesity influences healthcare costs, workforce productivity and how the environments people live in – think zip codes, not genetic codes – impact people’s health outcomes.

Obesity and the workplace
Interestingly, 75% of employer groups have some type of wellness program in place.  The average return on these programs is $3 for every $1 spent and, as Dr. O’Shea pointed out, the return isn’t just wellness, it’s productivity. While wellness programs can positively impact both company output and healthcare costs, they don’t have to be elaborate. Something as simple as redesigning stairwells or refreshing how the cafeteria looks can be part of a wellness program. Other components may include supporting employees with diet, exercise and smoking cessation.

Stopping an epidemic

As for how to solve America’s obesity epidemic, author Diane Smith noted, “We need to talk freely and without judgment. We need to stop blaming and shaming each other.” Further, Dr. Graham cited the access issues which face those who are food insecure and don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of healthier choices. “The worst options are affordable, accessible and promoted through marketing,” Dr. Schwartz added,

Building on her earlier point, Dr. Schwartz noted that while the food environment is dictated by the economics and the food companies, the Rudd Center’s philosophy is to change the environment so that it can help people to make healthier and more responsible choices. While all panelists agreed the environment needs to be changed, Dr. Graham advised that deliberate effort is needed. “Just because you open a store with healthier foods in a food desert doesn’t mean people will show up the next day.” It is about empowering communities to make better choices and helping people think more broadly about the environments they are creating for themselves and their loved ones.

While the environment is a big challenge facing Americans as they look to improve their overall health and well-being, all panelists agreed that people need to become active participants in their own health. “We expect the healthcare system to give us a quick fix and it’s not that simple,” noted Dr. O’Shea.

A Weighty Issue: America’s Unhealthy Relationship with Food was sponsored by Aetna.