Obesity isn’t just a cosmetic problem; it’s very much a medical problem as well. You may be reading this today because you are or have been very unhappy about your physical appearance. However, you should understand that losing weight isn’t just about looking good, it is about feeling good; it’s about being healthy and living a productive and comfortable life. Above all, it is about avoiding the terrible medical consequences of carrying around excessive weight.
The Medical Risks of Overweight and Obesity
The growing evidence shows that if you are overweight you are more likely to develop health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, gout (joint pain caused by excess uric acid), and gallbladder disease. Being overweight can also cause problems such as sleep apnoea (interrupted breathing during sleep) and osteoarthritis (wearing away of the joints); and the more overweight you are, the more likely you are to have these health problems. In comparison, healthy and steady weight loss can help improve the harmful effects of being overweight. The latest studies show that by losing as little as 10 to 20 pounds you can dramatically improve your overall health status, whilst significantly diminishing your risk of disease.
The Risks To Your Health Heart Disease and Stroke
Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death and disability for both men and women in the Western World. Overweight people are more likely to have high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, than people who are not overweight. Very high blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats) can also lead to heart disease and often are linked to being overweight. Being overweight also contributes to angina (chest pain caused by decreased oxygen to the heart) and sudden death from heart disease or stroke without any signs or symptoms. The good news is that losing a small amount of weight can reduce your chances of developing heart disease or a stroke. Reducing your weight by 10 percent can decrease your chance of developing heart disease by improving how your heart works, reducing your blood pressure, and reducing the levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
Noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (type 2 diabetes) is the most common type of diabetes in the Western World. Type 2 diabetes reduces your body’s ability to control your blood sugar. It is a major cause of early death, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and blindness. Statistically, overweight people are twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as people who are not overweight. You can reduce your risk of developing this type of diabetes by both losing weight and by increasing your physical activity. Furthermore, if you have type 2 diabetes, losing weight and becoming more physically active can help control your blood sugar levels. If you use medicine to control your blood sugar, weight loss and physical activity may make it possible for your family doctor to decrease the amount of medication you need.
Several types of cancer are associated with being overweight. In women, these include cancer of the uterus, gallbladder, cervix, ovary, breast, and colon. Overweight men are at greater risk of developing cancer of the colon, rectum, and prostate. For some types of cancer, such as colon or breast, it is not clear whether the increased risk is due to the extra weight or to a high-fat and high-calorie diet, this, of course, being strongly associated with weight problems as a consequence.
Sleep apnoea is a serious condition that is closely associated with being overweight. The apnoea can cause a person to stop breathing for short periods during sleep and to snore heavily. As a further consequence, there may be daytime sleepiness and in extreme cases the onset of symptoms of heart failure. The risk for sleep apnoea increases with higher body weights. Yet again, weight loss ultimately reverses this risk.
Osteoarthritis is a common joint disorder that most often affects the joints in your knees, hips, and lower back. Extra weight appears to increase the risk of osteoarthritis by placing extra pressure on these joints and wearing away the cartilage (tissue that cushions the joints) that normally protects them. Weight loss can decrease stress on the knees, hips, and lower back and may improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis.
Gout is a joint disease caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. Uric acid sometimes forms into solid stone or crystal masses that become deposited in the joints. Gout is more common in overweight people and the risk of developing the disorder increases in parallel with higher body weights.
Gallbladder disease and gallstones are more common if you are overweight and again your risk of the disease increases as your weight increases. It is not clear how being overweight may cause gallbladder disease but the association may be a consequence of changes in fat and cholesterol handling by the body leading to supersaturation of bile.
Lowering Your Health Risks
If you are overweight, losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight may improve many of the problems linked to being overweight, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds and are considered overweight on the weight-for-height chart, you would need to lose 10 to 20 pounds. Even a small weight loss can improve your health. Slow and steady weight loss of no more than 1 pound per week is the safest way to lose weight. Very rapid weight loss can cause you to lose muscle rather than fat. It also increases your chances of developing other problems, such as gallstones, gout, and nutrient deficiencies. Making long-term changes in your eating and physical activity habits is the best way to lose weight and keep it off over time.
- Eat Better Whether you are trying to lose weight or maintain your weight, you should take a look at your eating habits and try to improve them. Try to eat a variety of foods, especially pasta, rice, bread, and other whole-grain foods. You should also eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. These foods will fill you up and are lower in calories than foods full of oils or fats.
- Increase Physical Activity Making physical activity a part of your daily life is an important way to help control your weight and lower your risk of health problems. Spend less time in activities that use little energy like watching television and playing video games and more time in physical activities. Try to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day on most days of the week. The activity does not have to be done all at once. It can be done in short spurts–10 minutes here, 20 minutes there–as long as it adds up to 30 minutes a day. Simple ways to become more physically active include walking to the store or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
If you are not overweight but health problems related to being overweight have a tendency to run in your family, it is important that you try to keep your weight steady. Genetics are at work here, I’m afraid, and if you have family members with weight-related health problems, you are more likely to develop them yourself. Not sure of your risk of developing a weight-related health problem? Then the best advice is to seek advice from your family health team as soon as possible.
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By Dr. Jeremy Sims MB BS MRCGP FRIPH FRSH PGDipHI DipN&H MRNT CCCReg
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