Let's slim down, Michigan

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan is fighting the battle of the bulge, and victory prospects aren't looking good. A third of Michiganians are obese.

That's leading to all kinds of costs — and not only in terms of personal health. Obesity's tab is also paid by employers and taxpayers.

But that doesn't mean the government should step in as personal trainer.

When in comes to living a healthier lifestyle, it's an individual choice. It's not always easy to make smart food decisions or head to the gym instead of the couch. Yet that's what it takes.

Michigan is by no means the only state in the country that has waistline worries. Most states do, although the Great Lakes state is above average when it comes to weight.

According to a Gallup poll from earlier this year, Michigan doesn't fall in the top 10 obese states, but at 28.9 percent obese, it's definitely above the national average of 27.1 percent. And it's a long way from Montana's comparatively low 19.6 percent rate.

Nicole Bradshaw, a research associate with the Citizens Research Council, came out with a report last month highlighting the extent of Michigan's heft and the impact that's having on the state.

The report concludes that as one of the heaviest states in the country, Michigan can't "afford to ignore its costly weight problem."

In Michigan, 10 percent of medical expenditures are directly related to obesity. Bradshaw also points to research showing average annual medical costs for a severely obese individual are nearly twice that of a healthy weight individual.

It's worth noting that being overweight and obese are not necessarily the same. Obesity results from too much body fat.

Here are a few other findings from the CRC report:

■ More Medicaid participants tend to be obese than those on other insurance plans. Now that Michigan has significantly expanded its Medicaid program through Obamacare, that could result in high costs for the state. Nearly 400,000 new individuals have joined Michigan's health care program for the poor this year.

■Obesity also adds costs to employers through higher health, disability, and life insurance premiums, more employee absences and reduced employee productivity.

■One of the most alarming findings in this report is that around 15 percent of Michigan's children are obese. Children who struggle with obesity are more likely to miss school and drop out — not to mention the health risks.

"If the solution to reducing obesity rates were easy or simple, then there wouldn't be a problem," says Bradshaw in her report. "However, the causes of obesity are complex and varied, resulting in confusion regarding the best prevention and reduction solutions."

The report suggests getting the government more involved. That includes stricter food rules at schools and child care facilities, more physical activity during school, taxing unhealthy food and drinks and offering subsidies to offset costs of healthier food for low-income families.

But no matter how good the government intentions, many of these efforts lead only to additional cost and regulation—and not desired results.

For instance, the "Let's Move" national campaign led by First Lady Michelle Obama to tackle childhood obesity and make school lunch more nutritious has driven up costs for schools, even as students turn their noses at the healthier offerings.

And who wants an oppressive New York City-style nanny government?

A few years ago, Gov. Rick Snyder made his concerns over Michigan's weight clear and unveiled a few ideas to make people more aware of their health. It's one thing for the government to advise healthier decisions, but such advocacy often translates into regulations.

In the end, it comes down to personal responsibility — for yourself and your children.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.