New Research Finds Cost-Effective Ways to Cut Down on Childhood Obesity

Harvard School of Public Health researchers found strategies that could reduce obesity rates and related healthcare costs.

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) identifies three actionable—and affordable—ways to help cut down on childhood obesity.

The first of its kind, the study examined several nutrition interventions not just for efficacy, but for cost efficiency. After looking at several potential plans, the team found three strategies that it predicted would save more in healthcare costs than they would cost to implement: taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, removing the tax subsidy on advertising junk food to kids, and improving the snacks sold in schools.

The researchers estimated that enacting these initiatives nationally would prevent about 576,000, 129,100, and 345,000 cases of childhood obesity, respectively, by 2025—which would save, in order, $30.78, $32.53, and $4.56 for every dollar spent on implementation. They came to those numbers through an extensive prediction model that considered each strategy’s impact on body mass index, obesity prevalence, and the costs of treating obesity.

A second study out of HSPH underscores just how important it is to make improvements like the above as early as possible. The research looked at dietary changes from 1999 to 2012, and found that, while Americans are still not eating well enough, improvements in nutrition habits during that time period helped prevent 1.1 million premature deaths, and reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes by 12.6 percent, cardiovascular disease by 8.6 percent, and cancer by 1.3 percent.

While that’s good news, it could be much better. The researchers also calculated that, on a scale that ranks dietary healthfulness from 0 to 110, study respondents’ average eating score never broke 50. In other words, the Standard American Diet’s acronym—SAD—is still all too fitting.