Despite plenty of discussion, debate, and growing awareness, the U.S. continues to trail other developed countries when it comes to both the cost and quality of health care.

From the obesity epidemic to regulation to increased transparency, the causes — and potential solutions — will continue to shape our national consciousness until we figure out a better way.

The high costs of obesity

Fast-food meals aren’t the only things being supersized these days. As employees continue to grow larger, so do the expenses of their employers. Obesity costs businesses more than $73 billion annually in higher health care costs and reduced productivity, according to numerous studies. Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, says Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D., associate professor at Duke-National University of Singapore.

“Employers need to create a culture of wellness within the worksite, such that being healthy is the default,” he says. By his definition, one in three Americans is obese, with about another 40 percent overweight. This excess weight significantly increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and certain kinds of cancer.

  • How did researchers arrive at the $73 billion figure?

  • Obese workers are absent an average of one more week each year than employees of normal weight.

  • Obese employees spend 77 percent more on necessary medications than non-obese people.

  • Medical expenses are 42 percent higher for an obese person than for a normal-weight person.

The average annual medical costs of an obese person are $1,400 (or 42 percent) higher than for someone whose BMI is in the normal range.

Obesity-related costs are greater than those attributed to smoking, drinking, and poverty, according to several studies.

Employers increasingly find themselves squeezed in a vise between reduced productivity and increasing health care expenses, which might give them added incentive to introduce a results-based wellness program.

“We recognize the importance of practicing healthy habits in all areas of life — from the home to the workplace,” said Francesca Dea, executive director of The Obesity Society in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Practicing healthy habits throughout the day, like monitoring overall caloric intake and increasing physical activity, can improve and sustain health and weight. We’re working to create a company culture that encourages employees to take steps to stay active and well.”

Beating the bulge

Cutting the fat is a no-brainer. However, research shows that it’s more successful to focus on overall wellness than simply dropping the pounds. “Focus less on weight and more on behaviors that everyone in the worksite can engage in,” Finkelstein said.

Likewise, take a look at the potential savings from employee wellness instead of the costs of implementing a program. The return on investment is impressive: Medical costs fell by $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs, while absenteeism costs fell by $2.73 for every dollar spent, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Obesity Society puts its money where its mouth is. It tries out programs with its own employees that can be rolled out to other businesses. Their recommendations include:

  • Structuring programs to reward employees for engaging in healthy habits;

  • Avoiding the use of BMI as a basis for financial penalties or incentives;

  • Ensuring that incentive programs are matched with health plans that cover evidence-based obesity treatment programs and medications; and

  • Creating a supportive workplace environment that provides opportunities for healthy behaviors, such as healthy food options in the cafeteria and vending machines.

“Tackling obesity in the workplace requires a holistic approach with a focus on supporting employees in their health journey,” says member Ted Kyle of ConscienHealth in Pittsburgh. “Getting it right means workplaces that are encouraging healthy activities, employee cafeterias with healthy options, leaders who model healthy behavior and health plans that cover a wide range of treatments for obesity and overweight.”

Robert Kushner, M.D., director of Northwestern’s Comprehensive Center on Obesity, agrees. “Tackling obesity in the workplace requires a holistic approach,” he says. “Doing it right includes offering well-designed workplaces that encourage activity, cafeterias that focus on healthy eating; leaders who model healthy behavior; and health plans covering a wide range of treatments.”

The research and numbers on obesity point to an undeniable conclusion: Cutting the fat out will help keep budgets and health care costs lean.

Obesity by the numbers

It may help for employers to step on the scale and weigh the high cost of obesity versus that of implementing a wellness program. The financial website The Motley Fool points to 10 critical numbers that should catch the attention of every CFO and HR director: