Obesity rates in America continue to increase, having nearly tripled since 1975. Currently, 35% of adults are considered obese. Obesity is considered a major risk factor for developing multiple diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer. Full-time workers that are overweight or obese with other chronic conditions miss an estimated 450 million additional days of work annually when compared to healthy workers. For anyone struggling with weight gain, or those wanting to provide a support system, there is hope and help. Understanding the dynamics of obesity, including the causes and risks, are the first steps in combatting this generally preventable condition.
What is Obesity?
Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. BMI divides weight (in kilograms) by the square of height (in meters) and calculates a “score,” classifying adults as “underweight,” “ideal weight,” “overweight,” or “obese.” Obesity is further divided—a BMI of 40 represents severe or extreme obesity. BMI is not a perfect scoring system—ethnicity, sex, lifestyle, or lean mass versus fat mass are not accounted for; however, studies show that BMI and overall health status are closely linked, more than 60 chronic diseases are related to obesity. You can calculate your BMI using the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s BMI calculator.
So, what is causing this nationwide increase in body weight? Multiple reasons exist—medical conditions (such as endocrine disorders) and medications can contribute to weight gain. Additional causes include genetics, age, sex, ethnicity, environmental factors, and unhealthy habits such as lack of sleep, increased stress, poor food choices, and inactivity. See below for a closer look at some of these causes.
Studies have confirmed a genetic component—being overweight and obese can run in families and be passed from our genes. Changes to DNA in the sperm of obese fathers have been found passed on to the child. Also, how a woman eats during pregnancy can alter the DNA of the baby, affecting how the baby stores fat. It is important to note that overall genetics play a very limited role in the development of obesity. Studies indicate that healthy behaviors can counteract the genetic predisposition of becoming overweight or obese, meaning that most everyone can combat weight gain—and win.
Americans are consuming more calories than they are burning. We live in a world of technology—the way we interact, occupational roles, commuting, and eating have evolved. We can connect in a virtual reality space, never requiring us to get off the couch. Televisions, phones, and computers are changing how we communicate. Work is often sedentary, sitting at a desk for the majority of the day is all too common. Fast food is literally available 24-hours a day, potentially delivered to your doorstep within minutes. Unhealthy habits including overeating, eating processed foods loaded with sugar, eating increased portion sizes, and decreased activity have combined to create this nationwide epidemic.
Overeating can easily turn into an unconscious habit causing intense cravings for food, pleasure is derived from overeating—the brain is rewired and releases chemicals (dopamine and serotonin) when we consume foods with sugar, salt, and fat. Overeating signals the brain to trigger a reward—the more often we trigger this system, the more intense the cravings become. The pleasure loop gets reinforced over time, causing weight gain. This creates a reward system triggered by the sight or even the thought of food. Scientists have discovered that fatty foods impact the brain in similar ways as gambling and cocaine. Researchers hope to discover how to retrain our brains so that overeating does not become habitual by way of a pleasure loop.
Too Much Sugar.
Another factor responsible for the bulge—we consume too much sugar; 60% of adults are drinking at least one sugary drink per day. Sugar is a carbohydrate which eventually turns into fat if not used for energy. For example, a regular 20-ounce Mountain Dew contains 77 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to 18 teaspoons!
Our waistlines are not the only thing getting bigger—portion sizes continue to expand. For example, twenty years ago an 8-ounce cup of coffee (with whole milk and sugar) contained 45 calories; today, a 16-ounce mocha coffee (with steamed whole milk and mocha syrup) contains 350 calories—that’s a difference of 305 calories. In order to burn those extra calories, it requires walking one hour and twenty minutes. Unfortunately, activity rates are unlikely to increase to counteract the extra calories.
Inactivity is related to 3.2 million deaths per year and the average person is spending 12 hours per day sitting. Physical activity directly impacts weight and overall health status; research suggests that regular movement increases natural antioxidants, killing cells causing damage to our bodies. It is recommended that adults should do moderate-intensity exercise 2.5–5 hours/week or 1.15–2.5 hours/week of vigorous activity; both focusing on strength training two or more days a week for significant health benefits. Small adjustments to your routine could drastically benefit your health. For example, standing an additional three hours daily (over the course of one year) is equivalent to running approximately ten marathons or enough of an increase to lose 8 pounds of fat by burning an additional 30,000 calories.
Treatment and Prevention
Ways to combat weight gain include behavioral therapy, exercise, creating a weight loss plan that focuses on caloric reduction, lifestyle changes, medications, and possible surgery. Routine visits to your primary care provider are essential for identifying ways to maintain or achieve a healthy weight. Following the health care reform act, most insurance plans provide preventative and counseling services at no cost, this can include screening and counseling for obesity.
Talk to your primary care provider today if you have questions about your weight, body mass index, or types of screenings that may be warranted. Prevention and early detection are keys to a healthier lifestyle.
Medcor promotes health with four fundamental approaches to wellness—eating real food, moving your body, sleep, and minding your happiness. These core principles can help maintain and sustain a healthy weight, so remember: eat fresh food, increase your physical activity, focus on the length and quality of sleep, and find what brings you joy.
7 Harvard School of Public Health, “Genes are not Destiny: Obesity-Promoting Genes in an Obesity-Promoting World,” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/genes-and-obesity.
11 Kayla Itsines, “Here’s What Triggers Overeating (And What You Can Do To Break The Cycle),” Thought Catalog, November 12, 2016, https://thoughtcatalog.com/kayla-itsines/2016/11/what-triggers-overeating-and-how-to-break-the-cycle.