When a person has too much body fat, they are referred to as being obese. Not everyone who is overweight is clinically obese, but cases are increasing right across the country. In fact, it is estimated that nearly 40% of American adults are suffering from obesity.
Ongoing obesity can lead to several health problems that can have a serious impact on your overall quality of life, or even cause early death. Below we take a look at what causes obesity, what being obese means for your health, and how you can maintain a healthy weight.
Why are people obese?
It is a common misconception that all obesity is caused by people simply eating too much and moving too little, but this is not true. There are several other reasons why someone may have unhealthily high body weight.
One potential cause of obesity that is getting more attention of late is sleep deprivation. As people get busier and the intensity of modern life leads to more and more of us getting less and less sleep, research has revealed that this lack of sleep causes hormone imbalances in the body that can lead us to gain weight. This is because these hormone fluctuations cause increases in appetite by stimulating the production of appetite-boosting ghrelin, and limiting the production of appetite-lowering leptin.
If you have recently been prescribed medication for another condition and find yourself gaining weight, consult your doctor. Many medications have well-documented side effects, including rapid weight gain, and you should address the problem before it becomes unmanageable. While it’s important to treat any medical problems you may have, creating additional problems that come from weight gain will not help in the long run. Ask about any alternative medications or treatments that are available.
Obesity can also be genetic: scientists have identified a specific gene, named the fat-mass and obesity-associated gene that can lead people to eat larger amounts of food without feeling full. People with this gene also have a proclivity for higher-calorie foods, so they are much more likely to be obese.
Of course, some cases of obesity are caused by people just eating too much of the wrong foods. Consuming too much sugar, fat, processed food and carbohydrates (some kinds) and not burning off the calories through exercise leads to weight gain. Some people who are obese or morbidly obese consume as much as five times the recommended daily amount of calories daily.
Are you obese?
As mentioned earlier, not all people who are overweight are clinically obese. If you are concerned about your weight, visit your doctor – they will take some measurements and test a few things. If you are very obese they may be able to tell just by looking at you.
To make a diagnosis of obesity, your doctor will measure your Body Mass Index (BMI). This calculation uses your height and weight to determine if your weight is appropriate for your height. As a general rule the parameters are as follows:
- 18 – 25: healthy weight
- 25 – 29.9: overweight
- 30+ clinically obese
These are general guidelines as in some cases, people who are not overweight can have a very high BMI (such as bodybuilders, professional athletes or people with high muscle mass for their height). For this reason, your doctor may also measure your waist-size-to-height- ratio, your fat distribution, and compare the size of your hips and waist.
Complications of obesity
Obesity is linked to a higher risk of developing several medical conditions. The most common are detailed below.
- Heart Disease
Heart disease is one of the United States’ biggest killers, with hundreds of thousands of Americans dying from it every year. Obesity and heart disease are inextricably linked, with the extra strain placed on the heart by high body weight a major contributing factor.
People who are obese may suffer from a range of heart problems, including arrhythmia, coronary artery disease and heart attack. Dropping weight reduces the strain on the heart and reduces the risk.
Diabetes, specifically Type 2 diabetes, is one of the conditions most often associated with obesity. People who are clinically obese are up to ten times more likely to receive a diabetes diagnosis than people of average weight.
Type 2 diabetes can lead to a range of complications that can have a serious impact on quality of life, including heart disease, stroke, lower limb amputation, blindness, circulation problems, kidney failure, hypertension, and impotence.
- Gynecomastia (male breasts)
Gynecomastia, or male breasts, has many causes – but obesity is a common one. And it’s not simply increased body fat that causes breast tissue to develop; it is higher levels of estrogen that often occur when someone is overweight. The excess fat, however, can make the breasts appear larger.
While gynecomastia is not dangerous in any way, the breast tissue can sometimes be painful or tender. However, it often causes extreme self-consciousness in sufferers and men whose gynecomastia is not cured by weight loss often seek surgical intervention to correct it.
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- Arthritis, bone and joint conditions
Because of the increased strain that high body weight places on the body, people who are obese are highly susceptible to joint problems that go beyond normal wear and tear. These might include back problems, herniated discs, and more serious joint conditions such as osteoarthritis. Arthritis can make walking and moving around extremely painful, which also impacts on an individual’s ability to lose weight through exercise.
While there is no one cause of cancer, obesity is thought to be a contributing factor in tens of thousands of cancer deaths every year in the United States. While the exact link between obesity and cancer is somewhat of a mystery, statistics show that as BMI increases, so does the risk of developing some type of cancer. Your chances of eventually dying from that cancer also increase sharply.
Obesity puts increased strain on all the body’s organs and systems, including the circulatory system. This means obese people are at a hugely increased risk of vascular problems and stroke. It can also lead to other problems that, by themselves, increase the risk of stroke – heart disease, diabetes and apnea.
Getting back to a healthy weight
If your obesity is caused by overconsumption of food, you can get back to a healthy weight by changing your dietary habits and doing more exercise. If you are extremely overweight and moving around is a challenge, don’t be discouraged; even just small amounts of exercise can make a huge difference when combined with a healthy eating plan.
If you are trying to lose weight through diet, you should avoid foods such as processed meats, fast food, fried food, sweets, chocolate, refined sugars, soda, alcohol and white bread. Replace these foods with lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables and you should see the pounds begin to melt away. But don’t forget about portion control – eating ‘good’ foods in is no good if you’re eating far too much of them.
If your obesity has a genetic cause, your doctor will be able to identify a treatment plan.
Some people who are struggling with their weight will require surgical intervention: but bariatric surgery is a huge step and should not be taken lightly. There are a number of options available – your doctor will be able to advise you on which fits your situation best. In most cases, you will be required to lose a set amount of weight naturally before your surgery.
In a gastric bypass, the stomach is turned into a small pouch. This pouch is the only part of the stomach that can store and digest food. The surgeon also makes changes to the small intestine so that food simply bypasses part of it (hence the name of the procedure). This means that not only can the patient eat less, but fewer calories from what they do eat are absorbed by the small intestine. This produces rapid weight loss.
The second most common type of bariatric surgery is the sleeve gastrectomy, where the surgeon removes part of the stomach and leaves only a small, tube-shaped piece. As in a gastric bypass, this reduced stomach space simply can’t hold as much food and forces the patient to eat less. However, unlike the gastric bypass, a sleeve gastrectomy has no impact on how calories and nutrients are absorbed by the body.
In the laparoscopic gastric band procedure, an inflatable balloon is fixed to the upper part of the stomach and connected to a port placed under the skin. Fluid can be injected into or removed from the port to change the size of the stomach, restricting how much food someone can eat and helping them lose weight.
Please remember that every situation is different, and you should consult your doctor before undertaking any kind of weight loss plan. They will advise you on the best way to proceed.