Understanding Obesity and its Impact on Health

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In a world where fast food joints line the streets and sedentary lifestyles are the norm, it’s no wonder obesity has become a prevalent issue affecting millions of people worldwide. It’s time to put the spotlight on this rising epidemic and examine its devastating impact on health and well-being.

What is Obesity?

Obesity is a medical condition marked by excessive body fat accumulation, often caused by a calorie intake-energy expenditure imbalance. While factors such as genetics, metabolism, and environment play a role, unhealthy eating habits, lack of physical activity, and societal influences contribute significantly to the development of obesity.

The Weight of the Problem

According to the World Obesity Atlas 2023 report, 38% of the global population is currently either overweight or obese. If action is not taken, that number can increase significantly in the coming years. Childhood obesity has become especially concerning. Approximately 13% of South African children under the age of five are overweight, which is more than twice the worldwide average.

How is Obesity Measured?

While most turn to the scale to determine weight, obesity is assessed using a calculated method called Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI divides a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared (kg/m²).

The formula for BMI is: BMI = weight (kg) / (height (m) * height (m))

BMI provides a general indication of a person’s body fatness and is used as a screening tool to categorise individuals into different weight categories:
  • Underweight: BMI less than 18.5
  • Normal weight: BMI between 18.5 and 24.9
  • Overweight: BMI between 25 and 29.9
  • Obesity (Class I): BMI between 30 and 34.9
  • Obesity (Class II): BMI between 35 and 39.9
  • Extreme obesity (Class III): BMI of 40 or higher

While BMI is a widely used measure of obesity, it has limitations. It may not accurately reflect body composition for specific individuals, such as athletes with high muscle mass or older adults with age-related changes in body composition.  Other techniques, including waist circumference and body fat percentage, may be used with BMI to offer a more complete evaluation of obesity and its related health concerns.

The Impact on Health

Obesity increases the risk of chronic conditions, including:

  • Heart Disease: Carrying extra weight can put a strain on your heart. It might lead to problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and clogged arteries, which can cause heart attacks and strokes.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Excess body fat can impair insulin function, leading to insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes.
  • High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): Being overweight is often linked to high blood pressure, which is bad news for your heart and blood vessels. It can increase the risk of heart disease, strokes, and other heart problems.
  • Joint Problems: Carrying extra kilos can stress joints, making them ache and stiffen. This can lead to osteoarthritis, where your joints wear down over time.
  • Sleep Apnoea: Obesity can lead to sleep apnoea, a condition where you stop breathing briefly while sleeping, leaving you tired during the day.
  • Asthma: Obesity is associated with an increased risk of asthma and can worsen symptoms, making it harder to control the condition and increasing the risk of asthma-related complications.
  • Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD): Too much fat in your body can lead to a buildup of fat in your liver, causing a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). This can lead to inflammation, scarring, and other liver problems.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Obesity is a risk factor for GERD, a digestive disorder characterised by chronic acid reflux, which can cause heartburn, chest pain, and complications such as oesophageal ulcers or strictures.
  • Certain Cancers: Being overweight can raise the risk of certain cancers, like breast, colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.
  • Depression and Anxiety: Obese individuals are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and body image issues. 
Here are some strategies to tackle obesity:
  • Adopt a Balanced Diet: Eat various nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Limit processed and high-calorie foods, sugary beverages, and unhealthy fats intake. 
  • Don’t Overeat: Listen to your body’s cues that signal you’ve eaten enough, and don’t turn to food out of boredom or emotional triggers.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to help curb hunger and keep your body hydrated. Sometimes, thirst can be mistaken for hunger, leading to unnecessary snacking.
  • Stay Active: Regular physical exercise helps maintain a healthy weight. Find activities you enjoy, whether walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, or playing sports, and make them a regular part of your routine.
  • Set Realistic Goals: Start with small, manageable changes, such as swapping sugary drinks for water, adding more vegetables to your meals, or taking short walks throughout the day. 
  • Seek Support: Consider joining a weight loss programme or support group or working with a registered dietitian or certified fitness trainer to develop personalised strategies for success.
  • Practice Self-Care: Prioritise self-care activities such as getting enough sleep, managing stress, and practising relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing exercises.