The High (and Mostly Hidden) Costs of Obesity

Tape measure around fat mans waist

It's no secret that Americans are a bit "fluffy," as comedian Gabriel Iglesias politely puts it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.9 percent of adults age 20 and over are classified as obese -- and another 33.3 percent as overweight.

It's also no secret that these extra pounds can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

When you add it up, billions of dollars are spent every year to treat obesity-related conditions. Estimates range from the oft-cited $147 billion from the CDC to a new Cornell University study published in the Journal of Health Economics that puts the number at $190 billion annually.

On an individual level, the annual medical costs for people who are obese run thousands more than those of normal-weight people -- $1,429 more (in 2006 dollars, according to the CDC) to $2,741 more per individual (in 2005 dollars, according to the Cornell study).

These dollar amounts are startling to consider. But as is often the case, it's the not-so-obvious costs that are even more shocking.

Here's What Really Weighs Down the Wallet of an Overweight American

A study published by McKinsey & Company on the obesity pandemic emphasizes that the economic burden of excess weight goes far beyond just medical costs.

In fact, the researchers estimate that "obesity currently costs the United States at least $450 billion annually." Even if you back out the medical costs from that figure, you're still left with billions spent on non-medical (or "other") costs of being overweight.

The Increased Danger of Eating Disorders in Obese Teens
The Increased Danger of Eating Disorders in Obese Teens

According to the McKinsey report, the added costs -- to individuals, employers, and society at large -- include:

• Additional food -- An overweight person burns more calories than a normal-weight person. So an overweight person's body requires more calories simply to maintain their current weight. This additional food costs an extra $90 billion a year, according to the McKinsey report.

• Larger clothes -- Bigger waistlines require more fabric. Which is why plus-size clothes are more costly to make and therefore more expensive to buy, according to a New York Times article on the business of plus-sized clothing. McKinsey estimates that overweight people spend an extra $30 billion a year on clothing.

• Diet regimens -- Most folks know they should trim off a few pounds. So they spend money to help them achieve their goals, turning to companies like Weight Watchers (WTW) for assistance. All told, according to McKinsey, this spending on weight-control programs costs an estimated $20 billion annually.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%• Time off from work -- The McKinsey research states that obese people have "higher absenteeism rates," and are "much more likely to need short-term disability leaves." This burdens their employers with $60 billion in sunk costs each year.

• Lost output -- Along similar lines, obese people "tend to be less productive on the job than people of normal weight," according to a 2010 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. McKinsey puts this cost of decreased productivity for companies at an additional $70 billion annually.

• Larger everything -- Society as a whole shares in these hidden costs of obesity. For example, as the McKinsey report notes it costs more fuel for airlines to get those extra pounds off the ground. Stadiums and theaters must build larger seats. Hospitals require bigger equipment. And so forth. This totals an estimated $20 billion each year.

Add it all up, and these hidden costs total nearly $300 billion every year. And while these costs often go hidden, they certainly have a significant impact on people's lives and financial futures.

Motley Fool contributing writer Adam J. Wiederman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Weight Watchers International. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Originally published