Was I wrong about losing weight?

Was my suggestion several years ago of ways to fight the obesity epidemic provocative? Since nothing was working, I proposed using money as an incentive, and tax the obese. After all, for centuries money has been a great motivator. In fact, those with millions sometimes cheat, steal and lie to get more. But no one thought I should be awarded the Nobel Prize for this idea.

Some readers said I should go back to medical school and learn something about eating disorders. Or they wondered if I had even graduated. Others denounced me as obesophobic, and said I should get the stupidity award for suggesting such a demeaning tax.

But was I a dunce, or just a trifle ahead of the times? A few years later Iris Evans, Alberta’s new health minister, stated that people needed a new approach to being svelte. She too suggested financial incentives such as a tax write-off to lose weight.

Now, an article in the Economist magazine reports that in these tough economic times, companies are using both soft and strong arm approaches to improve the health of employees.

For instance, at the General Electric office in suburban Connecticut, employees are forbidden to smoke on company property. The office gym has personal trainers and outside the cafeteria a sign shows the number of calories in various foods. In fact, the salad bar has colour-coded tongs to indicate which salad dressing should be used sparingly.

Why is this happening? It’s because corporations are in the business of making money for shareholders, and unhealthy employees are a drag on profits. Since 1980 the number of adults who are obese has doubled, and along with this problem the cost of health premiums has more than doubled.

So now companies are concentrating on money incentives to help decrease this cost. For instance, Humana, a health insurer, recently launched a program that rewards healthy behaviour with points, which can be used at hotels or for electronic gadgets.

Corporations are taking clues from specialists in human behaviour. Behaviourists have convinced companies that humans are not rational actors. If given the choice of good health or the enjoyment of a pizza, pizza wins. But they also claim this behaviour can be manipulated so that employees make wiser health choices.

Large companies such as IBM are also in the forefront of financial incentives. IBM employees receive $150.00 for exercising and eating more nutritious meals. Its plan may include entire families. Companies know that it’s six times more expensive to care for a child with diabetes than one without this disease.

Today’s corporations have learned that some patients with diabetes will follow an enhanced wellness lifestyle for $4, another requires $20 to get the wellness adrenaline flowing, while still others see the benefit because they don’t want to have a leg amputated due to diabetes complications.

But some companies believe that offering carrots to employees isn’t enough incentive to lose weight. At Safeway, a grocery food chain, employee health premiums decrease if employees keep their weight and cholesterol blood level under control. This means the unhealthy are penalized. Things are also getting tougher at General Electric in the U.S. GE initially offered incentives to those who stopped smoking. Now those who continue smoking must pay $650.00 more for health insurance.

This tough approach does not mean these corporations, or this journalist, are obesophobic, Rather, as Shakespeare wrote, “desperate diseases require desperate cures”. And financial incentives or being penalized for obesity is a desperate way to shock everyone into realizing that corporations (and our government) cannot cope with the financial cost of treating obesity and its complications.

I have great empathy for those who are obese due to genetics. But this applies to very few of the population. Genetics doesn’t explain how a nation, particularly the U.S, could develop an epidemic of obesity in less than a lifetime. The answer is obvious, too many calories of every kind.

What corporations should do is buy each employee a bathroom scale and a calorie book. Counting calories and stepping on a scale every day is the only way to beat obesity.

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