Obesity is one of the most taxing problems to the national healthcare system today. According to Ogden et. al (2012), a whopping 35% of adults in the U.S. are obese. Another recent report by Dunning (2012) projects obesity to add an extra $66 billion to healthcare costs as adult obesity levels reach 44% by 2030. That is a 25% increase in less than two decades! What’s more is that obesity itself can be infectious as the network effects of obesity are well documented. (Christakis & Fowler, 2007) So the rate at which obesity will grow is exponential if not dealt with immediately.
The most common propellants for obesity include poor eating habits and lack of exercise. (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, n.d.) To address poor eating habits such as overeating, one behavioral economic concept that can be applied is framing. For a quick review, ‘framing’ refers to how choices are influenced by guiding an individual or group’s interpretation or by constructing their perception. One way public policy can influence portion control is by regulating plate and cup sizes, thus changing the default perception. Given the resistance seen with Bloomberg’s Big Gulp Ban in New York, however, the challenge here is to do this without creating an intense paternal state of burdensome regulations.
Poor eating habits are also a result of conflicting information from ‘trusted’ government sources, such as the USDA, who have been promoting low fat yet high carb diets. A reexamination of the nutritional framework will be needed to reflect our modern understanding of nutrition science. Perhaps elements of exercise should be introduced to the nutritional framework allowing both components to be framed together.
Another way to influence healthy behavior may be to introduce a gamified healthcare platform where rewards are given at frequent intervals inducing constant motivation. Fitbit and Nike Fuel Band are some successful examples that have been building these types of social-motivation based platforms. Using Fitbits or similar devices, governments and insurance companies could develop a frequent flyer type point system where for every action towards healthy lifestyles you are awarded points that can later be redeemed for rewards such as a tax credit. This way the ‘player’ is rewarded with virtual points at frequent intervals and then rewarded again at point redemption.
One caveat to these all solutions however is that “even people with severe obesity tend to think of the word as applying only to people much heavier than they are.” (Griffin, n.d., p. 3, para. 3) Because of this illusory superiority effect, public awareness campaigns that define what is obese will also be needed. To overcome any overconfidence bias, a virtual scarlet letter type badge that only the user could see on one of these platforms could also be implemented. Even though these practices are sensitive in nature, this awareness campaign has the potential to reverse the incidence of obesity along the same network effect transmission mechanisms.
In case you are wondering if you’re obese, if you live in the US, it’s likely that you are. Here’s a chart to compare how you measure up. Your BMI = 703 * [(weight in pounds) / (height in inches)2]