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Many earlier blogs have discussed the impact of obesity on the individual affected – but a recent Irish study has shone light on the cost of obesity as a health condition on the broader global economy.

The safefood project funded a study to search and synthesise the current research documenting the economic cost of the obesity epidemic. The project specifically involved a review of published literature to identify direct and indirect costs caused by obesity. (For the purposes of this study, the impact of obesity, and the impact of overweight, as defined by a person’s body mass index (BMI) was included).

To be considered in the review, studies had to be published between 2001 and 2011 and include a broad cross-section of adults (e.g. studies focussing on women, children, or particular professions were excluded). Studies with populations of less than 500 were also excluded, and any study which did not determine obesity or overweight using BMI calculations in alignment with World Health Organisation standards.

In total, 5 relevant articles matching the eligibility criteria were identified from a total pool of 3,481 possible publications. The 5 articles were from Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, and Sweden.

Types of direct and indirect costs
Example of included direct costs were inpatient and outpatient hospital and health services, doctor costs, medication and health research. Indirect costs included anything which may contribute to lower productivity levels. This incorporates morbidity due to disability, absence from work due to illness, early retirement, absenteeism from work, premature death as a result of other health conditions related to obesity and presenteeism (for example, where someone continues to work, but is less productive than usual).

Calculating the cost of obesity
Four factors broadly contributed to the calculation of costs:
• The number of people who are obese or overweight
• The other health conditions they might be impacted by as a result of their weight
• A statistical calculation to estimate the risk of other health conditions occurring for someone who is obese or overweight
• Access to cost data

Across all 5 studies, indirect costs were found to contribute between 51-59% of the total costs of obesity. To give an indication of how significant those costs are as a proportion of health spending, other research has indicated that costs in the United States may represent between 4.3% to 7.8% of total health expenditure. In other countries the proportion of costs range from 1% to 4% of total health expenditure.

Although it is difficult to compare costs across countries with different population mixes and health systems, it is clear that the impact of obesity is significant. The cost is composed both of direct impacts (such as health services) as well as indirect costs (such as lost productivity, absenteeism, or early retirement), which represents the bulk of the overall economic cost of obesity. Compounding this challenge is the understanding that costs adjust upwards in line with BMI increases.

Dee, A., Kearns, K., O’Neill, C., Sharp, et. al. (2014). The direct and indirect costs of both overweight and obesity: a systematic review. BMC Research Notes, 7(1), 2–17.

As weight loss professionals, do you discuss the cost of obesity with your clients? And do you ever discuss the indirect costs, such as reduced quality of life, absenteeism, or other types of consequences?