Here's a weighty idea: the best investment most Americans can make--- for themselves, for their children, for the country--- is in dieting and weight loss.

I came to that conclusion about a year ago after discovering that we rank 25th in the world for life expectancy. We rank about the same in disability-adjusted life expectancy, a measure of expectancy that reduces life expectancies by measuring degrees of disability. Think of it as life expectancy adjusted for quality of life.

So while we spend more money on healthcare than any other nation, we trail miserably when measured by the result we treasure most, a long and healthy life.

What does that have to do with dieting and weight loss?

Everything.

The greatest advances in life expectancy resulted from advances in public health: better maternity practices, clean water systems, sewage systems, and immunization for deadly illnesses such as tuberculosis and polio. Relatively little has come from spectacular surgeries and other medical advances for treating individuals. As a consequence, I think it is safe to say that we're spending much of our healthcare money in the wrong place. We should be addressing public health, not individuals.

Unfortunately, obesity isn't like tuberculosis. It is an individual condition that has become a public health problem. It will shorten our lives and increase our level of disability as we age. It will also cost unimaginable sums that will cripple conventional health care, reduce paychecks, and increase the number of people who can't get health insurance. As currently practiced, health care will bankrupt the country, according to the most recent generational accounting figures.

What can we do about it?

If we're overweight, we can accept personal responsibility. We can lose weight. We can exercise. We can start paying attention to what we eat, when we eat, and how often we eat. It's that simple.

If you're overweight, allow me to make some suggestions from personal experience. At this time last year I weighed 220 pounds. That's not good for a five-foot-nine Army standard male, vintage 1940.

Recently, I broke 190 pounds. That's still overweight. I expect to reach 170 by spring. As my high school German teacher loved to say when I passed a test, "If Herr Burns can do it, anyvone can do it!"

Here are the basic steps.

Visit one of the websites that estimate life expectancy.   I visited one last year. My life expectancy was 80. Lose weight, improve my diet, exercise, and get regular medical exams and my expectancy soars to 90.   Name an investment that pays off in years of life.

Forget about fad diets. Read Covert Baileys' "The Ultimate Fit or Fat" (Houghton Mifflin, pb, $9) relating fitness and weight. We gain weight because we consume more calories than we use. Worse, a mere 10 extra calories a day (that's the calorie content of a few M&Ms) will add a pound a year. Small wonder those who were svelte in high school can be 40 pounds overweight by the time they are 60. Start to walk. Don't make a big deal out of it, just start to walk.

Start a food diary. Record what you eat. Join Weight Watchers. Use their "Points" system for evaluating your diet. I'm not a joiner, but I found their points system extremely useful. The Weight Watchers 30 points a day is the equivalent of 1500 calories, with minor adjustments for fat and fiber. Combine the food diary and 30 points a day and you learn, very fast, the habits you need to change.

Here are some of my personal lessons.

•       A daily Starbucks Caramel Macchiato isn't a good way to lose weight. Substitute an occasional non-fat vanilla latte.

•       Little things add up: coffee creamer, even without cholesterol, is heavy in calories.

•       Eliminate sandwiches, substitute rice and bean bowls. Take an apple to work for the afternoon droop.

•       Celebrate office birthdays--- but forgo the cake.

•       Tragic reality: a margarita is 6 points.

•       A glass of wine (2 points) and cheese (8 points or more) before dinner is a bad idea.

•       My beloved grilled rib eyes had to go. They've been replaced with an occasional small filet mignon. More often with grilled fish.

•       Virtually every fast food choice in America is an assault on your life expectancy.

•       Most restaurants serve double-sized portions: so split an entrée with your spouse or graze the appetizer menu.

I could go on, but it would spoil your fun. The most fundamental learning here is that it's all about paying attention---like personal finance, but with a bigger payoff.

On the Web:

MSN Money Central Life Expectancy Calculator

Living To100 Life Expectancy Calculator    

Covert Bailey, The Ultimate Fit or Fat

Sunday, August 10, 2003:The Cure May Be In The Details

Sunday, June 1, 2003: The Facts Got Cut Prior to Taxes

HealthTransformation.net: Savings Lives and Saving Money