Obesity and Your Health
In the past several decades, obesity has spread like an epidemic across the United States, threatening our health and quality of life. Now that over one-third of Americans are obese, we’re starting to see what a serious problem obesity is. Though it was once thought that we gained weight because of a personal lack of willpower, the American Medical Association now recognizes obesity as a disease, as opposed to a condition.
“Over the years, the view of obesity has changed,” says Dr. John Bagnato, who began practicing medicine over 30 years ago. “When I was in training, it was considered a weakness. Today, it’s classified as a disease.”
Obesity claims hundreds of thousands of lives each year, but why has it become such a major problem, and what can we do to solve it? Because so many different factors can contribute to obesity, these can be difficult questions to answer, but it helps to begin by looking at why we gain weight in the first place.
How Do We Become Obese?
Obesity often stems from a complex combination of things like diet, behavior, lifestyle and environment. However, one of the biggest factors in obesity is our own DNA.
We all have an ingrained will to survive, and this means we have to eat. The calories we take in from food give us energy for everything we do, and so we have a drive to take in and conserve as many calories as possible. This is part of what is often called the survival instinct.
But when we eat more calories than we use up, our bodies store them as fat, and we gain weight. This gave our ancestors fat to burn for energy when food was hard to come by. But the way we live is different now–food is plentiful, so what was once a valuable survival tool can today hurt us more than it helps.
According to Dr. Bagnato, people today are eating more fast food and more food in general, but despite the extra calories we’re taking in, we’re also much less active. Many of us make our living using computers rather than doing manual labor. Most of us spend a significant portion of time sitting in front of TV screens and computers, while shortcuts like elevators, cars and riding lawn mowers have made it easy to move around while burning fewer calories.
These societal changes help to explain the rise of obesity in recent history, but they aren’t the only pieces of the puzzle. Everyone gains weight for different reasons. Because our metabolism slows as we get older, we tend to gain more weight with age. Some people also live in environments that make weight loss difficult, or develop hard-to-control habits like emotional eating.
The Toll of Obesity
Because obesity makes your whole body work harder, it increases the risk of serious conditions like:
- Heart disease
- Acid reflux and GERD
- Sleep disorders
- Liver disease
- Some forms of cancer
Body mass index (BMI) is used to calculate overall body fat based on height and weight, and can also be used to assess the health risks of obesity. As a person becomes more obese, BMI rises and life expectancy drops. This is because many obese people have their lives cut short by the diseases associated with obesity.
Today, obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death after smoking. According to Dr. Bagnato, some reports even show that obesity now causes more deaths than smoking, and is responsible for 600,000 deaths each year.
Because obesity is a chronic disease, short-term solutions are usually unsuccessful. Many people lose weight by making changes to their habits only to regain that weight when they return to old behaviors.
To achieve lasting weight loss, we typically need:
- Long-term dietary changes
- Long-term lifestyle changes
- A healthier relationship with food
- More activity
Changes like these can be difficult to implement without help and support, especially for the severely obese.