Obesity: Causes, Risks & Prevention

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With the ever increasing pace of everyday life and subsequent lifestyle changes, mankind is facing a great health-hazard in the form of ‘Non-Communicable Diseases’. One of the many such ‘Non-Communicable Diseases’ is ‘Obesity’.

What is Obesity?

In a world where food supplies are intermittent, the ability to store energy in excess of what is required for immediate use is essential for survival. Fat cells, residing within widely distributed adipose tissue depots, are adapted to store excess energy efficiently in our bodies. Obesity is a state of excess adipose tissue mass. It is perhaps, the most prevalent form of malnutrition, in both developed and developing countries and affects children and adults alike.

What are the causes of Obesity ?

  • Age: It is established that excessive weight gained in childhood leads to obesity in later life, as most adipose cells are formed early in life.

  • Sex: Men gain more weight between 29 and 35 years whereas women gain during 45 to 49 years of age.

  • Genetic Factors: Though not always hereditary, genes do predispose to obesity. There is, however, a familial tendency.

  • Physical Inactivity: Reduced energy output leads to obesity which, in turn, leads to further inactivity. It’s a vicious circle.

  • Eating Habits: The composition of diet (refined foods and fat), periodicity with which it is eaten (eating between meals), and the amount of energy derived from the diet are the factors of obesity.

  • Psychosocial Factors: Emotional disturbances such as depression, anxiety, frustration and loneliness are related to obesity.

  • Endocrine Disorders: Occasionally, disorders like Cushing’s syndrome, Thyroid disorders are associated with obesity.

Assessment of Obesity

Though, being ‘overweight’ can be a crude assessment of being obese, there are certain precise measurements and reference standards used to assess the state of obesity.

  • Body Mass Index (BMI)
    The BMI for an individual can be simply calculated as :
    Weight (kg) / Square of Height (meters)
    For example, if a person weighs 60 kg and is 1.5 meters tall, his BMI would be:
    60 / 1.5 X 1.5 = 26.67
    Usually, a BMI of 30 is considered as the threshold of Obesity.

  • Skin fold thickness
    As fat is usually stored just under the skin, thus, the measurement of skin thickness gives a pretty accurate measurement of the grade of Obesity. Though some special skin calipers are required for the same.

  • Waist Circumference
    It is a simple and convenient measurement, which closely correlates with the actual BMI, and is an approximate index of the intra-abdominal fat.

Hazards of Obesity

Obesity is a positive risk factor for the development of:
(a) Hypertension
(b) Diabetes
(c) Gall Bladder disease
(d) Coronary Heart disease

Obesity may also lead to decreased fertility, development of abdominal hernias, osteoarthritis of knees, hips and spine, and psychological stress.

How to Prevent and Control Obesity ?

Prevention should start with early detection in childhood, and aims primarily at weight reduction. This includes the combination of:

  • Dietary changes: Reduction of energy-dense foods, such as carbohydrates, fats and refined foods, along with an increase in dietary fibers, helps in weight reduction as well as prevention of Obesity.

  • Increased physical activity: Regular physical exercise is the key to increased energy expenditure. It is effective both in prevention as well as treatment of Obesity.
If Obesity has already occurred, then along with the above two measures, the following may be needed.

  • Drugs: Appetite reducing drugs have been tried in the treatment of Obesity. But these have been found inadequate to produce massive weight loss in high grades of Obesity.

  • Surgery: Usually the last resort, it aims at eliminating the excessive fat as well as modifying the digestive tract itself in order to bypass the stomach and parts of the intestines.

One should not expect quick results in an effort to treat Obesity. It is slow to develop and slow to disappear. Increased awareness to the signs and hazards of Obesity, and measures to prevent its occurrence, is probably the best way to save oneself from this prevalent health problem.

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