Obesity is more than a cosmetic concern. People who fall into the range of “obese” have been shown to be at a higher risk of disease that leads to death.
What is Obesity?
The words “obese” and “overweight” get thrown around a lot in common language, but the scientific definition is, “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health (1).” Over the years, there has been extensive research studying the implications, causes, and prevention of obesity. You may also be familiar with interventions, including Michele Obama’s “Let’s Move” program. Unfortunately, despite research and preventative measures, little success has been noted as a result of existing efforts.
When examining the why behind obesity as an epidemic, experts point to the lifestyle changes required to overcome it. To prevent and treat obesity it is vital that physical activity be increased, and nutrition improved (2). These are two integral aspects of life that are difficult to control or change. This is because the things we eat and our activity levels are generally heavily ingrained habits that are intertwined with our way of life.
BMI (body mass index) is likely to come up in any discussion of obesity. While it is a helpful tool in indicating high body fat, it is not intended to determine obesity in individuals (3). As we will discuss, there are many factors that contribute to a healthy body and lifestyle, and all should be considered when determining the health and risk of obesity of an individual.
Who’s at Risk for Obesity?
In the United States, 36.5 percent of adults are obese, and 17 percent of children are obese (4). These numbers are on the rise and expected to have a 130 percent increase in severe obesity prevalence over the next two decades (5). In efforts to stop this shocking trajectory, links between age, gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors should be acknowledged as well.
Studies continue to show a notable link between ethnicity and obesity. Almost half of non-Hispanic blacks have obesity, with Hispanics right behind at 42.6 percent, non-Hispanic whites at 36.4 percent, and non-Hispanic Asians at 12.6 percent (6).
It is consistently determined that socioeconomic status plays a role in obesity. In low-income homes and areas, there is a higher prevalence of obesity, attributed to several things, including less nutritional education and access to healthy choices (7).
There are high instances of obesity across age groups, but studies show you are most likely to be obese in middle age (8).
Believe it or not, sleep plays a significant role in risk for obesity, so much so that studies suggest chronic partial sleep loss is associated with an increase in the risk of obesity (9).
Warning Signs of Obesity
Now that you’re familiar with the risk factors, how can you tell if you should discuss your weight and body fat with your doctor?
If you experience the following, it may be a warning sign of obesity. You can benefit from a discussion with your doctor (10):
Difficulty with physical activity
Low confidence and self-esteem
Identifying with items on this list does not necessarily mean you fall into the “obese” category, but we recommend discussing any noticeable health or body changes that concern you with your doctor.
Side Effects of Obesity
Obesity poses quite a few risks for disease and impacts health and overall life in various ways.
Risk for Disease
Obesity is linked to many negative health conditions including over 60 diseases. These include: Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis (11).
From fertility concerns, to the predisposition of the child, to postpartum depression, obesity has been studied and experts identify obesity for many pregnancy corners.
Studies have identified a strong relationship between overweight women and the risk of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and more (12).
In the current society, diet culture is prevalent, and leads to a stigma around weight gain and overweight individuals. This can lead to discrimination and at times, negative impact on the psyche (13).
Obesity prevention is consistently studied, and new ways to combat the risk and treat currently obese people are being discovered often.
Take note that BMI is not the gold standard for health, and does not show a full picture of a person. For example, someone can fall into the overweight or above range on the BMI scale, while leading a very healthy lifestyle. BMI is used in assessing a population, while tools such as BIE (bio-electrical impedance), skin calipers, and hydrostatic weighing are better used for individuals.
The easiest way for you to gauge yourself is to use your nutrition and physical activity to measure your health and risk for obesity. Below we mention some tips for physical activity and nutrition to lower your risk of obesity.
Incorporate physical activity
Studies show adding 20 minutes of brisk walking per day can reduce the risk of mortality by 24 percent in people of normal weight, and 16 percent in those who are obese (14).
Eat a well-balanced diet
You don’t need to “eat clean” all the time, instead, focus on food as fuel for your body and refrain from eating processed foods. For adults, eating more “good” fats, less processed sugar, and more whole foods, such as grains, fruits and veggies will help combat obesity (15).
As mentioned, sleep plays a critical role and those who do not get the recommended sleep per night or have sleep disturbances are automatically at a higher risk. If you experience significant or regular sleep issues, talk with your doctor about interventions to improve sleep.
Obesity is a worldwide epidemic, and while some risk factors are beyond an individual's control, pivotal factors such as getting enough physical activity and eating well can help to lower risk significantly.
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