It's no secret that America is struggling with an obesity epidemic. Turn on the TV, flip open a magazine or read a newspaper, and you're likely to see obesity-related stats and advice. And while the old adage "eat less and move more" can help people maintain a healthy weight, it doesn't fully cover the complex factors and nuances that affect obesity in the U.S. Whether you're worried about your own weight, a loved one or the obesity epidemic in general, addressing the root causes of obesity with positive solutions can help everyone live a healthier life.
Lifestyle and Genetic Causes of Obesity
Part of the obesity epidemic comes down to changes in behavior. Eating higher-calorie food and living a sedentary lifestyle means you're more likely to get more calories than you need, which contributes to weight gain. And the increased availability of fast and processed foods along with longer work hours means people are more likely to overeat and less likely to stay active -- a combination that adds up to excess pounds.
At the same time, genetics can make certain people more prone to gaining weight, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That doesn't mean there's one single "fat gene," as actually, several genes are linked to obesity, according to the CDC. But it means that genetics might make someone more likely to feel hungrier or eat more food, or to store excess calories as fat.
Larger-Scale Societal Causes
Obesity isn't just caused by individual lifestyle choices; environmental, cultural and societal factors also play a role. Approximately 23.5 million Americans live in "food deserts," which means they live at least a mile away from the nearest supermarket, according to a USDA study published in 2009. That can make it harder to access healthy foods, like fruits and veggies, that help with weight control.
Other factors -- like lack of access to sidewalks or safe walking or biking trails -- can make it more difficult for people to incorporate exercise into a day-to-day schedule and stay active enough to prevent weight gain. Income might also play a role. Lower-income women, for example, are more likely to be obese than higher-income women, notes the CDC. Lack of funds might make it more difficult to afford high-quality healthy food or join a gym, which could result in weight gain.
Physical Health Effects of Obesity
It's no secret that obesity has a negative effect on health. Carrying too much fat contributes to chronic inflammation and ups the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes -- especially if the excess weight comes from visceral fat, the type that accumulates deep in your midsection around your organs. People with obesity are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, gallstones, stroke, sleep disorders -- like sleep apnea -- and kidney, liver, breast and gallbladder cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carrying excess weight might also trigger chronic pain -- caused by the increased strain on your muscles and joints -- and contribute to bone disorders, like osteoarthritis.
Mental Health Effects
While you often hear about the physical effects of obesity, carrying excess weight can have other negative effects. People with obesity suffer from stereotyping, discrimination and bias that can affect their ability to find a job, access education and receive high-quality healthcare, according to a review published in Obesity Research in 2001.
This discrimination can not only affect mental health and self-esteem, but "shaming" obese people might also actually worsen physical health, according to research published in Social Psychology Quarterly in 2011. The researchers questioned over 1,500 obese or overweight people about weight discrimination, then followed up 10 years later to examine their health. The study authors found that people who felt they faced weight discrimination experienced a sharper decline in their health over the 10-year period than those who felt they weren't discriminated against. The bottom line -- shaming and discrimination seems to contribute to weight-related health issues.
Coming Together to Prevent Obesity
Obesity is a complex issue, but it's not an insurmountable one. If you're struggling with obesity, making simple lifestyle changes can help. Try experimenting with healthy recipes and stocking up on affordable healthy foods -- like lentils, oatmeal or eggs -- to eat healthy on a budget. Make a healthy lifestyle a social experience; look for a "gym buddy" or "walking pal," or look for adult recreational sports leagues in your area to meet new friends while you get active.
If you're concerned for a family member or loved one, lead by example by preparing healthy meals and staying active, taking steps to include your loved one in healthful activities without making him feel judged. If you're not sure how to talk to your loved one about his weight, consider consulting a professional for help.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Adult Obesity Facts
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Adult Obesity Causes & Consequences
- Obesity Research: Bias, Discrimination and Obesity
- Purdue University: Stigma Weighs Heavily on Obese People, Contributing to Greater Health Problems
- The Food Trust: The Grocery Gap
- Social Psychology Quarterly: The Stigma of Obesity