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The Basics of Obesity

Obesity is a serious health problem. Two out of three American adults are overweight or obese.

Your weight affects how you look and maybe how you feel. But being overweight or obese also raises your risk of getting many health problems.
To control your weight, you’ll need to pay attention to it for life. But the rewards, like looking and feeling better, are worth it.
Obesity is complex. Genes may play a part (for instance, if one of your parents or a sibling is overweight or obese). So do lifestyle choices, like not exercising or eating too much.

Beating obesity
Losing weight isn’t easy. It means starting new, healthier habits and sticking with them.
Your doctor can help you find a plan that works for you. Remember, losing even a little weight and keeping it off can help improve your health.
How do you become overweight or obese? You most likely take in more calories than you burn off with physical activity. A calorie is the energy that food provides.






Why are some people more prone to be overweight than others? These factors can all play a part.

Causes & Risk Factors

Science shows that genetics plays a role in obesity. Genes can directly cause obesity in disorders such as Bardet-Biedl syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome.

However genes do not always predict future health. Genes and behavior may both be needed for a person to be overweight. In some cases multiple genes may increase one’s susceptibility for obesity and require outside factors; such as abundant food supply or little physical activity.

Lack of physical activity is a major cause of weight gain. People spend more time sitting at their desks or in front of the TV than earlier generations. So, they burn fewer calories. Add eating high-calorie foods and you have a recipe for weight gain.
Experts blame other factors, too. These include:

  • Eating larger food portions.
  • Using labor-saving devices, like dishwashers and elevators.
  • Driving more; walking less.

Health conditions and medicines
Some conditions can tend to make you gain weight. They include:

  • Thyroid problems
  • Some hormonal problems
  • Depression

Many medicines may cause weight gain. Some of these include medicines for:

  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer chemotherapy
  • Anti-rejection medicines after an organ transplant
  • Seizures and psychosis
  • Depression

If you have a medical condition or take a medicine that you think makes you gain weight, see your doctor.

Emotional reasons
When you eat for your emotions, it’s harder to control your food intake. Learn more about emotional eating.


Measuring Obesity

A common measure of obesity is the Body Mass Index (BMI). It compares weight to height.

The index can’t tell the difference between fat and muscle. For instance, someone with more muscle (like an athlete) may have a high, “unhealthy” body mass index. But he or she would likely have a low risk of weight-related problems, like diabetes or a heart attack. For this reason, the index can’t always show when weight could lead to health problems.
The Body Mass Index also may not show obesity well in:

  • People who are under 5 feet tall
  • Older people who may have lost muscle mass







But, in general, doctors find it a useful tool to assess possible health risks for most adults. As your body mass index goes up, your health risks go up.

Here’s how they use the Body Mass Index:

  • BMI lower than 18.5:     



  • BMI 18.5-24.9:

Normal weight


  • BMI 25-29.9:



  •  BMI 30-39.9:



  • BMI 40 or higher:

Severely obese



Waist measurement

Doctors can also tell if you’re at a higher risk for health problems by where your body stores fat.

People who carry fat around the middle are more likely to have health problems than those who store fat in the hips and thighs. Even if your Body Mass Index is normal, having an “apple-shaped” body (more fat in the middle) means higher health risks than having a “pear-shaped” one (more fat in the hips/thighs).
How big you are around your waist will tell you whether you store fat around your middle. Here’s how to check it:

  • Pull a tape measure snug around the largest part of your waist.
  • In general, men with waists of 40 inches or more are at higher risk of having health problems.
  • For women, it is 35 inches.




The Caloric Balance Equation

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight for a lifetime, the bottom line is — calories count! Weight management is all about balance—balancing the number of calories you consume with the number of calories your body uses or "burns off."

Caloric balance is like a scale. Calories in = food and beverages. Calories out = body functions and physical activity.
  • A calorie is defined as a unit of energy supplied by food. A calorie is a calorie regardless of its source. Whether you’re eating carbohydrates, fats, sugars, or proteins, all of them contain calories.
  • Caloric balance is like a scale. To remain in balance and maintain your body weight, the calories consumed (from foods) must be balanced by the calories used (in normal body functions, daily activities, and exercise).

If you are…

Your caloric balance status is ….

Maintaining your weight

"in balance." You are eating roughly the same number of calories that your body is using. Your weight will remain stable.

Gaining weight

"in caloric excess." You are eating more calories than your body is using. You will store these extra calories as fat and you’ll gain weight.

Losing weight

"in caloric deficit." You are eating fewer calories than you are using. Your body is pulling from its fat storage cells for energy, so your weight is decreasing.


Health Risks

Many health conditions are linked to weighing too much. The more serious ones include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Possibly, some types of cancer, including cancers of the colon, esophagus, kidney, breast, and uterus

Other problems linked to being overweight include:

  • Masses that form in the gallbladder (gallstones)
  • A form of arthritis that causes joint pain (gout and osteoarthritis)
  • Breakdown of the substance between bone joints (osteoarthritis)
  • Breathing problems during sleep (obstructive sleep apnea)

Obesity often brings emotional problems, like depression and low self-esteem. Obesity’s emotional price may be due partly to how society views overweight people.

Weight-loss benefits
Of course, obesity affects how you look and feel. Losing weight can help you look and feel better.

Weight loss also lowers your risk of having health problems. Losing just 5% of your body weight can improve some health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes. This means that, if you weigh 220 pounds, losing 11 to 22 pounds can help improve your health.

Don’t try to lose too much weight too fast (no more than 3 pounds per week). Sudden weight loss may raise your risk of developing gallstones. It may also mean you aren’t getting all the nutrients your body needs.
Aim to take off one to two pounds a week. The best way to do that is to reduce your overall calories, and change your eating and exercise habits, not by going on a crash diet.


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