For years, obesity was widely considered a personal weakness, but now we’re starting to think about it differently. Today, the American Medical Association classifies obesity as a disease, and for the one-third of American adults who are obese, it can take a serious toll on health and quality of life.
“I feel that if we treat obesity as a disease rather than a social problem, then we’re going to have a lot better chance of being successful,” says Texas bariatric surgeon Dr. Daryl Stewart.
By definition, a person is obese if he or she has too much body fat, but the problem is often very complex. Obesity can be caused by a variety of complicated factors, and controlling it can be difficult.
Why We Gain Weight
Everyone gains weight for different reasons, but obesity typically stems from a complex combination of things like diet, behavior, environment and genetics.
For many of us, poor eating habits are at the core of weight gain. We all need energy from food for everything we do, but whenever we eat more than we can use as energy, we gain weight.
According to Dr. Stewart, any energy we take in that doesn’t get used—whether it’s from sugar, fat or protein—is converted into fat. This is how our bodies store energy for later, but many people continue to eat too much and move too little, and they gradually gain weight.
Modern society doesn’t help with this problem. Food today is more convenient and served in bigger portions than ever before. We also spend more time sitting in front of computers and TVs, and using things like cars and elevators that minimize physical activity.
How Obesity Affects Us
Body mass index (BMI) is used to estimate body fat based on height and weight, and as BMI gets higher, so does the risk of developing an obesity-related condition like:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Some forms of cancer
The term morbid obesity is used when excess weight causes illnesses like these. When someone becomes morbidly obese, their weight has begun to cause serious disability and dysfunction.
People are typically considered morbidly obese when they have a BMI over 40. According to Dr. Stewart, life expectancy starts to drop significantly when the problem reaches this point, because many obese people have their lives cut short by disease. However, obesity at any stage can also affect your quality of life by making it more difficult to perform at work, as a parent or in simple daily activities.
The Solutions for Obesity
Obesity is a chronic disease. Though there are many ways to lose weight, long-term changes to diet, lifestyle and habits developed over many years are typically required to keep weight off. According to Dr. Stewart, this means that many people, particularly the severely obese, need help to get their weight under control.
“It’s not something that is easily treated,” Dr. Stewart says. “It’s something that requires constant vigilance on the part of the patient, but also they need tools to help them.”