Fat Fines: Could Japan Plan Work in U.S.?

By contrast, the be American Diabetes Association guidelines state that healthy men and women have waist circumferences of 40 and 35 inches, respectively.

But even these guidelines can be hard to follow.

"Many people in our culture, we can't even find our waist," said Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, professor and director of the UPMC Weight Management Center in Pittsburgh. "We don't need a tape measure to know, 'Are you an apple or a pear [shape]'?"

And Fernstrom added that people don't take steps to deal with their weight problems early, when intervention would be most helpful, until they become sick.

"It's a focus on the wrong thing," Fernstrom said. "People think if I'm not sick, it doesn't matter what my waist is."

Grab the Carrot, Lose the Stick

Experts say that a better model for the U.S. would be incentive based as opposed to penalty based. That is, people should be rewarded for being healthy and attempting to take control of their weight rather than being fined for being overweight.

To that end, many companies are implementing programs that offer cash and gift cards to employees who are actively trying to be healthier. A new survey, conducted by ERISA Industry Committee and the National Association of Manufacturers, showed that 71 percent of employers offer incentives for health and wellness programs, a 15 percent increase since 2007.

Similar programs that help people stop smoking have been successful.

"Employers realize this," said Dr. George Blackburn, associate director of the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School. "How do we motivate this, how do we nudge it? Everyone says with money."

Fixating on body size can be potentially dangerous, as it makes people more vulnerable to drastic weight reduction measures, such as eating disorders. Experts say keeping the emphasis on health is a better approach.

"For people who are otherwise OK, this is not something you want to put off doing," Ayoob said. "This is doable for most people."

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