Complex condition influenced by genes, environment, economic factors

Obesity has a simple definition yet it is a very complex condition caused by a combination of many factors. Obesity means having too much fat on the body. This happens as a result of food and physical behaviors, but is also influenced by environmental, economic and societal factors.

Fat accumulates on the body as a result of taking in more calories from food than we use through physical activity. Because our diets have changed over the last several decades to include more processed foods, and because we eat out more often, we tend to take in a much higher amount of daily calories than our bodies need to function. Our jobs, often involving sitting behind desks, leave less opportunity for physical activity and less time in the day to work off the caloric intake.

Other lifestyle factors contribute to obesity, such as lack of sleep, which affects hormones that influence our body’s hunger response, as well as stress, which also affects hormones, hunger and fat storage. Science also shows that our bodies undergo genetic changes in response to our environment. Food, sleep, stress and other factors can affect the way our genes signal how the body should store fat, for example.

People most at risk for obesity are often more at risk because of their environment. They may have learned to prepare food in a certain way that is less healthy and others in their family or community also eat this way. Obesity is also more common in people and communities that are economically disadvantaged. Purchasing processed and high-calorie food is often cheaper so people with low income may be less likely to choose healthy options—even if they know what the healthier options are.

Obesity is commonly referred to as an epidemic because of its wide-reaching impact across the globe and because excess body fat contributes to numerous other conditions and diseases.

Having a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 is considered obese. Use a BMI calculator to figure out your BMI.

Mental and physical health problems linked to obesity

Being obese often means having a number of conditions that are caused by or worsened by obesity, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. People who are obese are also at high risk for heart disease and heart attack. The excess weight often affects sleep as well, causing sleep apnea and other breathing disorders. Obesity affects the body’s ability to carry its own weight so joint pain and related conditions are common, as are sexual dysfunction.

Due to the nature of obesity and its impact on quality of life, people often deal with social isolation, poor self-image, depression and anxiety.

Treating obesity with lifestyle changes and medical intervention

First, talk with your primary care doctor about your condition and explore ways to manage your weight. Losing even a small amount of weight can improve your health and reduce certain risks if you are obese. This usually involves a combination of lifestyle changes, such as increasing your physical activity while making significant food adjustments. Many people who are obese have had success working with nutritional counselors, physical therapists and fitness trainers to transform body and mind while losing weight.

Obesity treatment may also involve medical intervention, such as a medically managed weight loss program and special diet. In extreme cases in which traditional methods of weight management such as diet and exercise have not made a difference, weight loss surgery may be an option.

At Main Line Health our team includes doctors, nutrition counselors and therapists who are highly experienced in helping improve quality of life and health for people who have obesity.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.