Understanding Obesity

Understanding Obesity

For many years, obesity was considered a problem of willpower, but the American Medical Association now classifies it as a disease. Obesity has spread across the United States in recent history, leaving about two-thirds of American adults overweight or obese and at risk of developing obesity related diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

By its simplest definition, obesity means we have too much body fat, but the causes and effects of the condition can be complicated.

“For each person the reason why we gain weight varies,” says medical obesity specialist Dr. Robert Ziltzer. “It’s not simply a matter of taking in too many calories or not burning enough calories—it’s much more complex than that.”

So many different factors can contribute to the problem that it’s often difficult to lose weight and get obesity under control.

How Do We Become Obese?

To understand how we gain weight, it helps to first understand how we take in and process energy.

All of us use calories from food as fuel for everything we do. Whether you’re going on a leisurely bike ride, chasing after your kids or cleaning up the dishes after dinner, you need energy from food to do it.

But when we don’t use all the calories we eat, our bodies convert them into fat. For our ancestors, this provided a backup energy source when food was scarce, but we don’t have as much trouble finding things to eat these days.

“It’s very easy now. You’ve got premade meals that you pull out of a package and you throw in the microwave, or you go to a local restaurant and within 20 minutes whatever food you want is at the table,” says Dr. Craig Primack, also a medical obesity specialist.

Convenient, unhealthy foods are all around us, and as a result, we tend to eat more calories than we need. We’re also surrounded by cars, computers, TVs, elevators and other things that encourage us to be as inactive as possible, so we’re less likely to burn the calories we take in.

Many people gain weight because they continue to take in more energy than they use through daily activity, but obesity can have more complicated causes as well. According to Dr. Ziltzer, people also often gain weight because of things like:

  • A family history of obesity
  • An environment that promotes weight gain
  • Overeating due to stress

How Does Obesity Affect Us?

Obesity can make every physical task more difficult, but it can also take an emotional toll. The obese are often discriminated against or looked down on, while the fear of public humiliation caused by not fitting in an airplane or movie theater seat can keep many obese people from doing things they would otherwise enjoy.

But health may be where obesity makes the clearest impact. Excess weight affects every part of your body, and this means a higher risk for diseases like:

  • Arthritis
  • Some forms of cancer
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Heart disease
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Hypertension
  • Sleep apnea
  • Type 2 diabetes

Body mass index (BMI) is used to estimate body fat based on height and weight. As this number gets higher, so does the mortality rate, because the lives of many obese people are cut short by obesity-related diseases.

Overcoming Obesity

Even a moderate amount of weight loss can help obese people improve their lives and lower the risk of obesity-related diseases. However, obesity is a chronic condition—though there are many ways to lose weight, weight loss diets are often short-term, and the weight comes back when the diet ends.

To keep weight off, we typically need:

  • Long-term dietary changes
  • Long-term lifestyle changes
  • A healthier relationship with food
  • More daily physical activity

It can be challenging to make long-term changes like these without help and support, especially for the severely obese.

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