The Health Risks of Obesity, and How to Prevent Becoming Overweight

Being overweight or obese isn’t just a cosmetic issue. Both conditions put your health at risk and can contribute a number of diseases, including diabetes and cancer. That risk only increases in individuals who have a family history of health problems, have a sedentary lifestyle, smoke, or have an unhealthy diet.

Despite the mounting research about the risks of excessive weight, the rate of obesity in the U.S. continues to climb. More than one third (34.9 percent) of U.S. adults are obese and 69 percent are overweight (including obesity). Obesity is also reaching higher levels (20 percent) in children and adolescents. Obesity has become a major health problem outside of the United States as well; in Latin America, more than 56 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Rates are lower in European countries, and range between 8 percent and 20 percent. The lowest rates are seen in Japan and Korea, which have 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Althoughgenetics can play a role in the possibility of becoming obese, the condition typically occurs when the amount of calories consumed exceeds the amount of calories expended over time.  These extra calories may be consumed as fat or as sugar (carbohydrates), but both are stored as fat in the body, and with time, the person becomes obese.

How to Determine If You’re Obese

To determine whether a person is overweight or obese, the Body Mass Index (BMI) is a helpful tool. BMI is calculated from your height and weight; the higher your BMI, the higher your risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems (like sleep apnea), an increase in abnormal blood fats like cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and certain cancers.

When the BMI is above 25, a person is considered overweight. When it’s above 30, the person is obese. Although BMI is useful for men and women, it does have limitations. For example, BMI may overestimate body fat in individuals who have a highly muscular build such as athletes and underestimate it in people who have lost muscle (for example, those who are recovering from surgery or cancer).

Waist circumference (WC) is a more accurate predictor of the health problems. Although WC and BMI are related, WC provides an independent prediction of risk. It’s particularly useful in people who are categorized as normal or overweight on the BMI scale.

The risk of health problems increases when the WC is bigger than 40 inches (102 cm) in men, and 35 inches (88 cm) in women.

Health Problems Associated with Obesity

Diabetes: About 9 percent of adults worldwide have diabetes, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the U.S., more than 30 million people have diabetes and more than 86 million have pre-diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Healthy diet, regular physical activity, maintaining a normal body weight, and avoiding tobacco use can prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.

A healthy diet for preventing diabetes includes reducing or avoiding foods that have a high Glycemic Index (GI). The GI is how quickly a carbohydrate in a food is digested and converted into sugar in your blood. Foods with the highest GI include table sugar, flour, rice, and everything made from these nutrients, such as processed bread, pasta, and pastry.

Strokes: Being overweight or obese can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries. This causes blood clots to form, which can eventually reach the blood stream and then vital organs such as the brain or the heart, blocking blood flow and producing a stroke.

Cancer: Obesity can increase your risk for certaincancers such as colon, endometrial, breast, and gallbladder. Obese and overweight women have two to four times the risk of developing endometrial cancer, regardless of their menopausal status.

An association between BMI and WC with colorectal cancer is seen particularly in men. Weight gain during adult life has been consistently associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in women after menopause.

How to Prevent Obesity and Weight Gain

Even if you have a genetic predisposition towards obesity, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to become obese. Your lifestyle choices can have a profound effect on your weight and health. Follow these tips to give yourself the best chance of good health.

A balanced diet: Make fresh, organic foods the priority. Eliminate or greatly reduce canned or processed foods, particularly those with a high GI, such as table sugar and flour-based foods, including bread and pastry.

Avoid deep-fried foods, which have high fat content, and items such as ice cream and cheese that are made from dairy fat. Fast food is packed with salt and non-healthy fats, so always favor homemade meals. Remember, drinks like soda are a huge source of calories in your diet. If you’re fighting obesity or any of its associated diseases such as diabetes, you may also want to avoid inflammatory foods such as those containing gluten or dairy.

Regular exercise: Physical activity is important because it reduces body fat and builds muscle. Exercise also has a direct effect in preventing diseases associated with obesity, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. It also helps regulate unhealthy fats, improves your mood, and even promotes better sleep.

A good night’s sleep: Deep rest helps the entire body function properly. Sleep modulates neuroendocrine function and glucose metabolism. Poor quality sleep can result in metabolic alterations such as glucose intolerance and a variation in the appetite-regulating hormones.

Manage stress: Stress is associated with an increase in hormones like cortisol and serotonin, which can lead to metabolic imbalances and accumulation of fat in the body, especially around the waist.

Stress can also lead to high blood pressure.

Associated anxiety can cause you to you crave “comfort” foods that are high in sugar or fat. Meditation and yoga may help you manage stress and become more centered and aware of the daily choices you make.

Preventing obesity, or losing weight if you are obese, is about having awareness of the daily choices you make. Understanding the causes and consequences of obesity is the first step towards a healthy lifestyle. The next step is up to you.

Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.

 

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About the Author
Melania Lizano

Melania Lizano

Certified Instructor: Meditation; Perfect Health
Melania Lizano is a gynecologist with 20 years of experience practicing medicine, specializing in high-risk pregnancy and gynecologic diseases. She has a Masters degree in nutrition and is certified to teach Perfect Health: Ayurvedic Lifestyle and Primordial Sound Meditation . She uses her knowledge in holistic health and mind-body medicine in her medical practice, where she treats patients in a holistic, integrative way, and promotes healthy eating and lifestyle habits in women Learn more about Melania’s practice at melanializano...Read more