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Obesity: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention

As a chronic condition, obesity occurs when the body has too much body fat, which can lead to various health problems. We will discuss its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention in this post.

What causes obesity?

When a person consumes more calories than they burn, the excess calories are stored as fat in the body. This leads to weight gain and obesity over time.

There are many factors that can contribute to obesity, such as:

  • Genetics. Some people may inherit genes that affect their appetite, metabolism, and fat distribution. These genes can make it harder for them to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

  • Environment. The availability and accessibility of high-calorie foods, large portion sizes, lack of physical activity, and sedentary lifestyles can influence a person’s eating and exercise habits. These environmental factors can increase the risk of obesity.

  • Behavior. A person’s choices and habits can also affect their weight. For example, eating too fast, skipping meals, snacking frequently, binge eating, drinking sugary beverages, and not getting enough sleep can all contribute to obesity.

  • Medical conditions. Some medical conditions or medications can cause weight gain or make it difficult to lose weight. These include hypothyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), depression, diabetes, and steroids.

What are the symptoms of obesity?

Body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference can be used to measure obesity since it does not have specific symptoms. BMI measures a person's weight and height and is used to screen for obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines obesity as having a BMI of 30 or higher.

The waist circumference can be another way to tell if you are obese. It reflects the amount of abdominal fat, which is associated with a higher risk of health problems. Obesity is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a circumference greater than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women.

The BMI and waist circumference, however, do not directly measure body fat or consider factors such as age, sex, ethnicity, or muscle mass. Therefore, they may not accurately reflect a person's health and body composition.

How is obesity diagnosed?

As part of a physical examination, a health care professional will usually ask about the person's medical history, family history, diet, and physical activity to diagnose obesity. Some tests may also be ordered to check for underlying conditions or complications associated with obesity. These tests include:

  • Blood tests. These can measure blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, liver function, thyroid function, and hormone levels.

  • Urine tests. These can detect signs of kidney problems or diabetes.

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). This can measure the electrical activity of the heart and detect any abnormalities or damage.

  • Chest X-ray. This can show the size and shape of the heart and lungs and reveal any signs of heart failure or lung disease.

  • Sleep study. This can monitor a person’s breathing patterns during sleep and diagnose sleep apnea, which is a common complication of obesity.

What are the complications of obesity?

Obesity can increase the risk of developing many serious diseases and health problems. These include:

  • Type 2 diabetes. This is a condition where the body does not produce enough insulin or use it properly. Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. Obesity can impair insulin sensitivity and cause high blood sugar levels.

  • Heart disease. This is a term that covers various conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Obesity can raise blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and inflammation in the body. These factors can damage the arteries and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

  • Cancer. This is a disease where abnormal cells grow uncontrollably in the body. Obesity can alter hormone levels and immune function in the body. These changes can increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer, colon cancer, endometrial cancer, esophageal cancer, gallbladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, and thyroid cancer.

  • Osteoarthritis. This is a condition where the cartilage that cushions the joints wears away over time. Obesity can put extra stress on the joints and accelerate cartilage loss. This can cause pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility in the knees, hips, and lower back.

  • Gallstones. These are hard deposits that form in the gallbladder, a small organ that stores bile, a fluid that helps digest fats. Obesity can increase the amount of cholesterol in bile and reduce its flow out of the gallbladder. This can cause gallstones to form and block the bile ducts. This can cause severe pain, nausea, vomiting, and infection.

  • Fatty liver disease. This is a condition where fat builds up in the liver and causes inflammation and scarring. Obesity can increase the amount of fat in the liver and impair its function. This can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, or liver failure.

  • Kidney disease. This is a condition where the kidneys lose their ability to filter waste and fluids from the blood. Obesity can increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels, which can damage the kidneys and reduce their function. This can lead to kidney failure, which requires dialysis or a kidney transplant.

  • Depression. This is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest. Obesity can affect a person’s self-esteem, body image, and social interactions. These factors can contribute to depression and affect a person’s quality of life.

How is obesity treated?

The main goal of obesity treatment is to help a person lose weight and improve their health and well-being. The treatment options for obesity include:

  • Changes in diet, exercise, and behavior are the most effective strategies for treating obesity. These include making healthy changes to one's diet, physical activity, and behavior as a first-line and most effective strategy. A balanced, low-calorie diet, for example, may include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Additionally, they can participate in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, such as walking, cycling, or swimming, to increase their physical activity. Furthermore, they may learn to cope with stress, emotions, and triggers that may lead to overeating or binge eating.

  • Medications. These are prescription drugs that can help a person lose weight by suppressing appetite, increasing metabolism, or blocking fat absorption. However, these medications have side effects and limitations. It is not appropriate for everyone, and it is not effective without lifestyle changes. They are usually prescribed for obese or overweight people with obesity-related health problems.

  • A surgical procedure that alters the digestive system to limit food absorption or intake. There are different types of weight-loss surgery, including gastric bypass, gastric sleeve, gastric banding, and biliopancreatic diversion with duodenal switch. It is usually reserved for people with a BMI of 40 or higher or a BMI of 35 or higher who suffer from obesity-related health problems. These surgeries are associated with risks and complications.

How can obesity be prevented?

Obesity can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. Some of the prevention tips include:

  • Eating a balanced, nutritious diet that meets one’s energy needs and preferences.

  • Limiting the intake of added sugars, saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and alcohol.

  • Choosing water or low-calorie beverages instead of sugary drinks.

  • Eating mindfully and slowly, paying attention to hunger and fullness cues.

  • Eating regular meals and snacks, avoiding skipping meals or fasting.

  • Planning ahead and preparing healthy meals and snacks at home.

  • Reading nutrition labels and being aware of portion sizes and calories.

  • Increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary time.

  • Finding enjoyable ways to be active, such as dancing, gardening, or playing sports.

  • Incorporating strength training and flexibility exercises into one’s routine.

  • Setting realistic and specific goals and tracking one’s progress.

  • Seeking support from family, friends, or professionals if needed.

  • Celebrating one’s achievements and rewarding oneself with non-food items or activities.

Despite its serious implications for one's health and quality of life, obesity can be treated and prevented with proper care and guidance. By making positive changes to one's diet, physical activity, and behavior, one can achieve a healthy weight and enjoy the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.

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