Obesity is a complex, chronic disease with several causes that lead to excessive body fat and sometimes, poor health. Body fat itself is not a disease, of course. But when your body has too much extra fat, it can change the way it functions. These changes are progressive, can worsen over time, and they can lead to adverse health effects.
The good news is that you can improve your health risks by losing some of your excess body fat. Even small changes in weight can have a big impact on your health. Not every weight loss method works for everyone. Most people have tried to lose weight more than once. And keeping the weight off is just as important as losing it in the first place.
- Obesity affects your body in many ways: Some are simply the mechanical effects of having more body fat. You can draw a clear line between extra weight on your body and extra pressure on your skeleton and joints. Other effects are more subtle, such as chemical changes in your blood that increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
- Some effects are still not well understood: There is an increased risk of certain cancers with obesity. We don’t know why, but it exists. Statistically, obesity increases your risk of premature death from all causes. By the same token, studies show that you can significantly improve these risks by losing even a small amount of weight (5% to 10%).
- Metabolic changes: Your metabolism is the process of converting calories into energy to fuel your body’s functions. When your body has more calories than it can use, it converts the extra calories into lipids and stores them in your adipose tissue (body fat). When you run out of tissue to store lipids in, the fat cells themselves become enlarged. Enlarged fat cells secrete hormones and other chemicals that produce an inflammatory response.
- Chronic inflammation has many adverse health effects: One way that it affects your metabolism is by contributing to insulin resistance. This means your body can no longer use insulin to efficiently lower blood glucose and blood lipid levels (sugars and fats in your blood). High blood sugar and blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) also contribute to high blood pressure.
Together, these combined risk factors are known as metabolic syndrome. They are grouped together because they all tend to reinforce each other. They also reinforce further weight gain and make it harder to lose weight and sustain weight loss.
On the most basic level, obesity is caused by consuming more calories than your body can use. Many factors contribute to this. Some factors are individual to you. Others are built into the structure of our society, either on a national, local or family level. In some ways, preventing obesity requires consciously working against these multiple factors.
- Fast and convenience foods: In communities and families where highly-processed fast and convenience foods are dietary staples, it’s easy to consume a lot of calories. These foods are high in sugar and fat and low in fiber and other nutrients, which can leave you hungrier. Their ingredients promote addictive eating patterns. In some communities, these may be the only types of foods readily available, due to both cost and access.
- Sugar is in everything: The food industry is not designed to maintain our health. It’s designed to sell products that we will become addicted to and want to buy more of. High on that list of products are sweets and sugary drinks, which have no nutritional value and a lot of added calories. But even standard foods have high levels of added sugar to make them more appealing and addictive. It’s so common that it’s changed our taste expectations.
- Marketing and advertising: Pervasive advertising pushes processed foods, sweets and sugary drinks, the products that we need the least but that the industry needs us to buy the most. Advertising makes these products seem like a normal and necessary part of everyday life. Advertising also plays a large role in selling alcohol, which adds a lot of empty calories
- Psychological factors: Boredom, loneliness, anxiety and depression are all common in modern society, and can all lead to overeating. They may especially lead to eating certain types of foods that activate pleasure centers in our brains, foods that tend to be higher in calories. Eating to feel better is a primal human instinct. We evolved to find food, and evolution hasn’t caught up to the kind of abundance of food that Western societies now enjoy.
- Hormones: Hormones regulate our hunger and satiety signals. Many things can disrupt these regulatory processes, including common things like stress and lack of sleep and less common things like genetic variations. Hormones can cause you to continue to crave more food even when you don’t need any more calories. They can make it hard to tell when you’ve had enough.
Preventing obesity is easier than treating it once it has taken hold. Once your body has established a new high set point, it will consider that to be your new baseline weight. Your body works to modulate your hunger signals and energy expenditure to maintain the same body mass, in spite of your weight-loss intentions.
If you’ve noticed a pattern of recent weight gain in yourself or your child, or if you have a family history of obesity, you might want to take steps to intervene sooner rather than later. Examining your habits and making reasonable changes now can help you prevent future obesity and weight loss struggles.
- Make a small sacrifice: Do you have a daily snack habit or “pick-me-up,” such as a sugary drink, that is high in calories? Consider replacing it. Just 150 extra calories a day can add up to 10 extra pounds in a year. That’s equal to a snack-size bag of potato chips, or just two double-stuffed Oreos.
- Add a small activity: Alternatively, consider what you might do to spend an extra 150 calories in a day. For example, go for a hike or use an elliptical machine for 25 minutes, or take the dog for a brisk walk for 35 minutes.
- Shop intentionally: Stock your home with healthy foods and save sweets and treats for special occasions when you go out. Whole foods are higher in fiber and lower on the glycemic index, so they don’t cause your blood sugar to spike and drop the way processed snacks and treats do.
- Cultivate overall wellness:Reduce your screen time, go outside and go for a walk. Manage your stress and try to get adequate sleep to keep your hormone levels in check. Focus on positive changes and healthy activities rather than how your efforts affect your weight.