Which Costs More: Gaining Weight or Losing It?


(Photo: Karen Roach/Getty Images)

With all the fancy health foods, gym memberships, special gear, and fitness trackers people use today, not having enough money almost sounds like a valid excuse for not losing weight.

But being overweight can be pricey, too. The costs of being overweight or obese show up in the form of expensive medical care and lost income. But from a purely monetary standpoint, which costs more: packing on the pounds or taking them off? Here’s the breakdown.

The Cost of Weight Gain

Gaining weight often happens so slowly that many costs are hard to detect. Buying bigger clothes is only slightly more expensive than buying smaller clothes, and unhealthy food tends to cost less than a healthy diet. The real costs associated with weight gain come over time.

Medical Costs: There are competing numbers for how much obesity affects medical costs for individuals, but none of the findings are pretty.

The study most commonly cited by organizations such as the CDC was published in Health Affairs in 2009, which found that an obese person in the United States pays around $1,429 more on medical costs than the average normal weight person each year.

Related: Losing Weight Will Fatten Your Bank Account

But a 2012 study from Cornell University puts the cost at nearly double that amount. The study, published in the Journal of Health Economics, estimated the average additional medical cost for obese adults amounts to $2,741 per year in 2005 dollars. The cost was even steeper for obese women at $3,613 per year.

Finally, in 2010, Obesity Reviews published a review that looked at the costs of being overweight and obese as measured in 33 different U.S. studies. Reviewers found medical costs for an overweight person average about $233 more than a normal-weight person per year, and $1,723 more for an obese person in 2008 dollars.

No matter which way you look at it, it’s clear that obesity can end up costing you at least a thousand dollars each year in medical costs alone.

Prescriptions: Although prescriptions are technically a medical cost, they are a regular part of many peoples’ budgets. In 2003, obese Medicare beneficiaries with BMIs of 30 to 34.9 spent on average about $600 more per year on prescription drugs than non-obese beneficiaries, according to Medicare data analyzed by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Medicare beneficiaries with BMIs of 35 to 39.9 spent about $1,200 more per year.

Lost Income: In the workplace, obese women fare much worse than obese men. The number of obese American women goes up as the income amount goes down, according to the National Center of Health Statistics. (The number of obese non-Hispanic black and Mexican men increases as income increases.) A 2004 study published in Health Economics estimated a wage penalty for obese workers could be as high as 6.3 percent.

Related: No More Denial: Obesity Kills

Studies have not only found that losses in income are attributed to lower wages, but also to more sick days and lower productivity. Dollar amounts are hard to determine because incomes vary widely, but several studies have shown that obese people take more days off work and are less productive.

One such study comes from the Netherlands, where 10,624 workers at 49 companies were analyzed to look at how various lifestyle factors affect productivity. The study found that obese workers were about 25 percent more likely to take sick leave and to be slightly less productive at work. An earlier American study out of Brigham Young University found that obese employees at one company were 61 percent more likely to experience moderate absenteeism due to illness. Absences from work and less productivity directly affect employees’ success in the workplace, which can translate to overall income.

So between medical costs, additional prescription costs, and lost income, a person could be losing thousands of dollars each year because they are overweight or obese.

The Cost of Losing Weight

Like most things, there are costly ways to lose weight and there are inexpensive ways, and what works best depends entirely on the individual. Regardless of the approach, however, losing weight does seem to provide significant financial benefits on top of all the physical and emotional ones.

Fitness: Working out can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. The average gym membership in the United States costs $58, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, but no-frills gyms such as Planet Fitness and Charter Fitness start at just $10 per month (plus a usual start-up fee of about $20 or more, which you can often avoid with various promotions and deals).

Related: Are We as Fat as We Think?

But your local recreation center is likely even cheaper, and if the weather permits in your area, you can skip the indoor gym altogether! And if you’d rather not workout in public, there’s always in-home fitness gear or videos, and you can get many of those items for free.

You don’t need fancy clothes and shoes to get fit, but for those who still need workout gear, prices can vary wildly. Sneakers range anywhere from $60 to $250, and attire can run between $60 for a full exercise outfit at a discount store to $60 for just one shirt or pair of pants at higher-end stores. Obviously this expense comes down to what you’re comfortable paying for and wearing.

Diet: According to research from Harvard and Brown Universities, healthy food costs a little more than unhealthy food per calorie. In a paper published in 2013, researchers estimated the costs of eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods versus low-nutrient “junk” foods and found that for a 2,000 calorie diet, healthy food costs $1.50 more than unhealthy food each day. That said, in order to lose weight you’d likely lower your calorie intake, which would result in negligible additional food costs that are easy to offset by following smart grocery shopping tips.

Related: Belly Fat: Sorting Science from Scams

If you decide to follow a commercial diet program, many show good results and are healthy, but not all are economical. Having meals delivered directly to your door, for example, can cost up to $50 per day or $1,500 per month for just one person. Cheaper versions cost about $240 per month, but deliver fewer meals. Other programs, such as Weight Watchers, offer moral support and tools and cost as little as $20 per month.

Prescriptions: Just as additional prescriptions for obesity-related conditions will cost you more, the reverse is true. Researchers at the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery found that adults who lost weight from bariatric surgery reduced prescription spending by 22 percent over four years. Drug usage for diabetes was reduced by 75 percent while cardiac drug usage was down by nearly 50 percent. It should be noted, however, that this study was conducted by bariatric surgeons that have a financial interest in positive results.

The Takeaway

Weight loss comes with upfront costs that can be hard to take all at once, but becoming or staying overweight or obese will cost you much more over time. It’s difficult to be “fit and fat,” as many chronic diseases are associated with obesity, and nearly all of them require significant amounts of money to manage.

By Lacie Glover of NerdWallet Health, written for Everyday Health

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This article originally appeared on EverydayHealth.com: Which Costs More: Gaining Weight or Losing It?