Lecture looks at economic costs of obesity epidemic

Dr. Laurian J. Unnevehr, an economic researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoke on the St. Paul campus Friday afternoon.

Lecture looks at economic costs of obesity epidemic

Emily Mongan


The physical costs of obesity are many — the risk of diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol are increased greatly in obese individuals.

This obesity epidemic has economic costs as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, upward of $210 billion was spent on health care costs related to obesity in 2008 alone.

Dr. Laurian J. Unnevehr, an economic researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, addressed the price tag of obesity in America as well as the costs of preventing obesity through public policy in a lecture Friday on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

The lecture, part of the University’s James P. Houck lecture series on food and consumer policy, attracted professionals in the food industry and economics fields, as well as interested students and members of the public.

Two-thirds of American adults are reportedly overweight or obese.

Obesity — classified as anyone with a body mass index more than 30 — has increased exponentially over the past 20 years in the U.S. In Minnesota alone, roughly 25 percent of adults are reportedly obese.

According to Boynton Health Service’s annual survey, 9 percent of University students are classified as obese based on self-reported height and weight.

The recent rise in obesity nationally can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the availability and affordability of unhealthy foods, said Dr. Allen Levine, director of the Minnesota Obesity Center.

“Food is inexpensive, and it’s available everywhere,” Levine said. “You can go to the gas station to fill up your car and fill up yourself.”

In the lecture, Unnevehr addressed best practices that can be implemented in public policy to reduce obesity rates. These practices include labeling calories and other nutritional information on restaurant menus and raising the nutritional standards of school lunches as well as taxes on certain foods.

Making nutritious food available in rural and underdeveloped areas is also a key strategy to reducing obesity. Four percent of the U.S. is what is described as a “food desert” — defined as not having a grocery store within one mile of their home in urban areas, or within 10 miles for rural areas, according to a 2009 USDA report.

All of these strategies, with the exception of food taxes, have been implemented on some level by the federal government.

These practices, however, come at a cost, Unnevehr said. For example, providing healthier lunches to the 22 million children currently on the United States’ school lunch program would cost up to 7 percent more than it does currently.

Unnevehr’s ideas are not the only efforts by the government to reduce the rate of obesity in the U.S. First lady Michelle Obama recently became an advocate for healthy living through her Let’s Move! initiative, which aims to slow the rising rate of childhood obesity by encouraging children to stay active and make healthy choices when it comes to food.

The idea of using public policy to combat obesity is not just limited to the U.S. For example, Denmark has enacted a tax based on the amount of saturated fat a food product contains. One pound of fat would be taxed roughly $1.29 if the same policy were enacted here.

However, the epidemic of obesity cannot be resolved with public policy alone. In her lecture, Unnevehr said research shows people are aware of their unhealthy habits, but changing their behavior is a difficult task.

In order to decrease the rate of obesity in the U.S., she said people will need to make changes in their eating habits, including trying to stay conscious of the amount of calories they consume while away from their home at school or work, as well as making smart choices when ordering at restaurants.