It seems everywhere we turn we hear about obesity. The statistics. The dangers. The effect it has on all areas of one’s life. The annual Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Indexsurvey released this week, which tracks respondents’ self-reported height and weight data, revealed that its tracked national obesity rate has risen to 27.7 percent — up from 25.5 in 2008. Mississippi has the highest obesity rate at 35.2 percent, while Hawaii is the only state where fewer than 1 in 5 residents are obese. And for the first time since 2008, there has been a sharp increase in the number of obese Americans ages 65 and older.
We know weight gain — especially excessive weight gain — is bad, but when you’re surrounded by all-you-can-eat buffets and communities not designed for walking, is there any hope of winning the battle of the bulge? The answer is a resounding yes, and the first step is knowing what obesity is and how it affects all of us.
Obesity: What Is It?
Over the last 25 years, obesity rates have been climbing steadily. While the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index finds 27.7 percent of Americans are obese, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that nearly 35 percent of adults and 18 to 21 percent of children are obese.
In layman’s terms, obesity is carrying enough body fat to put an individual at risk for a variety of ailments including diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, pulmonary disease, reproductive disorders, osteoarthritis, and cancer, among others. “In short, obesity can affect functioning of all major body organ systems,” says Jennifer Nasser, RD, PhD, assistant professor in the department of biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Obesity is typically determined by figuring out an individual’s body mass index (BMI) using a formula that includes his or her height and weight. For an adult, a number of 25 or larger falls in the overweight category, while a value of 30 or more is considered obese.
This formula is not appropriate for children and teens, however. “BMIs for children and teens are age- and gender-specific because the amount of body fat changes with age and growth and differs between boys and girls,” says Rose Clifford, RD, clinical dietitian in the department of pharmacy services at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. The CDC offers an accurate BMI calculator for those under age 20 with their Child and Teen BMI Calculator.
Obesity: What Causes It?
A variety of factors are converging to cause the current obesity epidemic. “More people are becoming obese because of the foods that are available and inexpensive,” says Caroline M. Apovian, MD, director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at the Boston Medical Center. “We are eating 200 more calories per day than we did 50 years ago.”
Technology has made our lives easier, yet also more sedentary as we drive instead of walk and e-mail instead of wandering by a colleague’s desk. The environment, too, can be causing us to add extra pounds. “Weight gain results from the interaction between genes and environment,” says Linda Bacon, PhD, associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis. “Environmental conditions are changing and some people’s genes make them susceptible to gaining weight in the current environmental conditions.” Bacon says that these include increased toxins in the environment, some of which cause changes in hormones which lead us to store fat, and changes in our eating habits — some of the nutrients more common today don’t trigger our internal weight regulation mechanisms as readily as foods from nature do.
Obesity: What Are Its Effects?
Besides health dangers, obesity can cause economic hardships and psychological effects including depression and self-esteem issues. Perhaps worst of all is the discrimination suffered by those who are obese. “Discrimination against larger people now exceeds that based on race and gender,” says Bacon.
And the effects don’t stop there. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index also asked respondents to rate their overall well-being. The survey defines well-being through five key areas: purpose (liking what you do each day), social (relationships), financial, community (liking where you live), and physical (having good health and energy to get things done). The survey found that obese Americans are more likely to suffer in these key areas than those who are not obese.
While obesity can be affected by genetics and the environment, there is still plenty you can do to fight it. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss which weight-loss and treatment options are right for you. Stay active by scheduling exercise into your routine and avoid spending too much time on sedentary activities like TV-watching. And make healthy diet choices — with correct portion sizes and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.