Obesity is one of the most significant public health problems in the United States. Today, over 75 percent of American adults are overweight and one-third are obese. Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the last 30 years, leaving one-third of American children either overweight or obese.
Obesity has far-reaching financial and health-related consequences. The problem has escalated to epidemic proportions in the last several decades and is difficult to reverse due to the many factors involved in its development. Still, with a little help and persistence, it is possible to overcome obesity and achieve better health and quality of life.
What Causes Obesity?
In essence, obesity means we have more body fat than is healthy. We primarily gain fat because we take in more calories than we can burn off through activity, but according to obesity specialist Dr. Wendy Scinta, it’s also about the types of calories we take in.
“We take in too much sugar, too many starches and simple carbs and not enough protein,” Dr. Scinta says. “That balance is really what has led this whole epidemic to skyrocket.”
For most people, obesity is caused by a combination of physical, behavioral and social factors such as:
- Genetics. The probability of being obese is 50 percent higher if one of your parents is obese, and 80 percent higher if both parents are obese.
- Socioeconomic status. Seven of the 10 highest poverty states have the highest obesity rates, and 9 of the 10 states with highest poverty are in the South, where obesity rates are higher.
- Race and ethnicity. Obesity rates are particularly high among African Americans and Mexican Americans, while rates are also increasing among Native American and Asian American youths.
- Education. Higher education is linked to a lower chance of becoming obese.
- Agriculture. An increase in the amount of high fructose corn syrup we eat has contributed to the rise in obesity.
- Food choices and changes. Today, we have greater access to processed foods and convenience foods. We eat more fast food, eat out more often and eat larger portions than before.
- Community design. In many areas, there are fewer opportunities for physical activity due to lack of safe recreational environments and poor upkeep of sidewalks and other public spaces.
- Schools. Today’s schools are home to unhealthy lunches, vending machines, food advertisements, fewer gym and health classes and less playtime than before.
- Lifestyle. Many people have busy lifestyles that make them more likely to choose convenience foods over healthy foods. Technology has also limited the amount of physical activity that the average person gets.
- Marketing & advertising. Poor quality foods are marketed incessantly in media, and this can influence our eating decisions.
How Does Obesity Affect Us?
Obesity is a medical and financial burden, with many consequences for individuals and society as a whole.
According to Dr. Scinta, obesity can cause serious health problems all over the body.
“It affects just about every part of the body,” Dr. Scinta says. “There are very few diseases that aren’t made worse by fat.”
Obesity puts us at risk of developing a number of chronic medical conditions often referred to as comorbid conditions or comorbidities.
The most frequently experienced obesity comorbidities are:
- Coronary heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Sleep apnea
- High cholesterol
- Cancer (breast, uterus, cervix, colon, esophagus, pancreas, kidney, prostate)
- Fatty liver disease
- Gynecologic abnormalities
- Gallbladder disease
- Severe pancreatitis
- Thyroid disorders
- Blood clots
Obese individuals die up to 10 years sooner on average than normal weight people, largely due to conditions like these. It is estimated that children today will have a shorter lifespan than their parents by three to five years because of obesity.
The health risks of obesity lead to significantly higher healthcare spending. Annual healthcare costs are approximately $346 higher for overweight individuals and $2,845 higher for obese individuals. Adult obesity costs an estimated $147 billion each year, while childhood obesity costs $14 billion. It is estimated that these costs will reach $344 billion by 2018 if rates follow current trends, which will account for 21 percent of the nation’s direct healthcare spending.
How Is Obesity Treated?
According to Dr. Scinta, long-term weight loss requires lifelong behavioral changes, which can be difficult to make in an environment filled with the factors that led to weight gain in the first place. Though there are many commercial diets for weight loss, these often fail because they do not focus enough on nutrition and behavior.
Dr. Scinta believes that a medical approach can improve the weight loss process. However, primary care providers often do not have the extensive time needed to treat obesity, and training in the treatment of obesity is often lacking in a primary care setting. Because of this, Dr. Scinta recommends a comprehensive weight loss program designed by a physician who specializes in obesity.