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The supersizing of America: retooling for the obesity crisis

Early last year, we learned that the U.S. obesity problem was deemed large enough (ahem) to actually threaten passenger safety on city buses. To better balance capacity and weight loads, the Federal Transit Administration is evaluating the possibility of raising the current standard of 150 pound passenger and 1.5 square feet to 175 pounds and 1.75 square feet. The matter is under consideration and a new rule is expected by the spring. It's not just a matter for the feds - New York city has been factoring in the "tush tally" as it plans for the purchase of metro cars.

As the average American weight continues rising -- almost a third of the population now qualifies as obese -- manufacturers of all varieties are up-sizing products to accommodate the our new girth. See 6 everyday objects that are getting bigger and bigger for a few examples - our bigger butts are requiring many unusual products to be retooled.

Last year, the state of Texas issued a 50-page obesity report Gaining Costs, Losing Time (PDF) that documented obesity's costs to employers and businesses. The Comptroller's report estimated "obesity-attributable insurance costs at $1.4 billion in 2005 and projected costs of $2.1 billion in 2009. New Comptroller estimates show direct insurance costs to be $4.0 billion in 2009."

  • Snacking - more junk food and food between meals
  • Energy-dense foods - read "more calories" - fewer fruits and vegetables
  • Portion control - a huge increase in average portions consumed
  • Eating out more - plus, we eat larger portions when away from home
  • Physical inactivity - we aren't expending the calories we eat Increased portions

In addition to the obvious costs to businesses - healthcare costs and insurance and absenteeism - there are many hidden costs. For example, the study notes that the U.S. airline industry consumes 350 million more gallons of fuel at an extra cost of $275 million annually due to an increase in the average weight of passengers, and that passenger weight gain accounted for as much as one billion gallons of fuel consumed per year between 1960 and 2002.

To gauge the costs to your organization, the CDC has an Obesity Cost Calculator, which will estimate your organizations costs of obesity based on characteristics of your company.

The Texas report issues a variety of public policy recommendations for initiatives to fight obesity - everything from programs in the schools and public health arenas to the military and police settings. It includes an extensive section on worksite wellness programs (see page 23), which includes a variety of profiles of successful corporate wellness initiatives... a great place to get ideas for your program.

If you don't have a wellness program, check with your EAP. At EAP Employee Assistance, we believe in the importance of wellness strongly enough that we offer our employee members health risk assessments, discounted weight loss programs, nutrition counseling, gym memberships, and more. Does your EAP have any wellness tools that you can tap into? If not, you may consider switching to one that does.

Meanwhile, we'll try to help by offering wellness tools that you can share with your employees> Here are a few visual aids related to portion control.

WebMD offers a variety of handy tools, such as a wallet size portion control guide and the portion size plate, which offers visual guidelines comparing portions to every day objects.

For another visual tool, see what does 200 calories look like.

The Mayo Clinic offers a slide show Guide to portion control for weight loss

There are a variety of serving tools and gizmos that can help, such as scales and portion-control products like Meal Measure, EZ Weight Plate and other portion control serving ware.

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