Overweight and Obesity
Also known as adiposity.
Overweight and obesity are increasingly common conditions in the United States. They are caused by the increase in the size and the amount of fat cells in the body. Doctors measure body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference to screen and diagnose overweight and obesity. Obesity is a serious medical condition that can cause complications such as metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, cancers and sleep disorders. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of your condition and whether you have complications. Treatments include lifestyle changes, such as heart-healthy eating and increased physical activity, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved weight-loss medicines. For some people, surgery may be a treatment option.
Being overweight is defined differently for children and teens than it is for adults. Because children are still growing and boys and girls mature at different rates, BMIs for children and teens compare their heights and weights against growth charts that take age and sex into account.
Other methods of estimating body fat and body fat distribution include measurements of skinfold thickness and waist circumference, calculation of waist-to-hip circumference ratios, and techniques such as ultrasound, computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Health Risks of Being Overweight or Obese
Being overweight or obese isn’t a cosmetic problem. It greatly raises the risk in adults for many diseases and conditions.
Overweight and Obesity-Related Health Problems in Adults
This condition occurs when a fatty material called plaque builds up on the inside walls of the coronary arteries (the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to your heart). Plaque narrows the coronary arteries, which reduces blood flow to your heart. Your chances for having coronary artery disease and a heart attack get higher as your body mass index (BMI) increases. Obesity also can lead to congestive heart failure, a serious condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs.
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
This condition occurs when the force of the blood pushing against the walls of the arteries is too high. Your chances for having high blood pressure are greater if you’re overweight or obese.
Being overweight or obese can lead to a buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries that form a blood clot. If the clot is close to your brain, it can block the flow of blood and oxygen and cause a stroke. The risk of having a stroke rises as BMI increases.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which blood sugar (glucose) levels are too high. Normally, the body makes insulin to move the blood sugar into cells where it’s used. In type 2 diabetes, the cells don’t respond enough to the insulin that’s made. Diabetes is a leading cause of early death, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness. More than 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight.
High Cholesterol and Abnormal Blood Fats
If you’re overweight or obese, you have a greater chance of having elevated cholesterol levels abnormal levels of blood fats. These include high amounts of triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (a fat-like substance often called “bad” cholesterol), and low high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (often called “good” cholesterol). Abnormal levels of these blood fats are a risk for heart disease.
Metabolic syndrome is the name for a group of risk factors linked to overweight and obesity that raise your chance for heart disease and other health problems such as diabetes and stroke. A person can develop any one of these risk factors by itself, but they tend to occur together. Metabolic syndrome occurs when a person has at least three of these heart disease risk factors:
- A large waistline. This is also called abdominal obesity or “having an apple shape.”
- Having extra fat in the waist area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than having extra fat in other parts of the body, such as on the hips.
- Abnormal blood fat levels, including high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol.
- Higher than normal blood pressure.
- Higher than normal fasting blood sugar levels.
Being overweight or obese raises the risk for colon, breast, endometrial, and gallbladder cancers.
Osteoarthritis is a common joint problem of the knees, hips, and lower back. It occurs when the tissue that protects the joints wears away. Extra weight can put more pressure and wear on joints, causing pain.
Sleep apnea causes a person to stop breathing for short periods during sleep. A person with sleep apnea may have more fat stored around the neck. This can make the breathing airway smaller so that it’s hard to breathe.
Obesity can cause menstrual irregularity and infertility in women.
Gallstones are hard pieces of stone-like material that form in the gallbladder. They’re mostly made of cholesterol and can cause abdominal or back pain. People who are overweight or obese have a greater chance of having gallstones. Also, being overweight may result in an enlarged gallbladder that may not work properly.
Treatment of Overweight and Obesity
Successful treatments for weight loss include setting goals and making lifestyle changes such as eating fewer calories and being more physically active. Drug therapy and weight loss surgery are also options for some people if lifestyle changes don’t work.
Setting the right weight loss goals is an important first step to losing and maintaining weight.
For long-term weight loss success, it’s important for you and your family to make lifestyle changes:
- Focus on energy IN (calories from food and drinks) and energy OUT (physical activity)
- Follow a healthy eating plan
- Learn how to adopt more healthful lifestyle habits
Over time, these changes will become part of your everyday life.
See Weight Loss Section for more Treatment Information
Keep a record. A record of your food intake and the amount of physical activity that you do each day will help to inspire you. You also can keep track of your weight. For example, when the record shows that you've been meeting your goal to be more active, you'll want to keep it up. A record is also an easy way to track how you're doing, especially if you're working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist.
Seek support. Ask for help or encouragement from your friends, family, and health care provider. You can get support in person, through e-mail, or by talking on the phone. You also can join a support group.
Reward success. Reward your success for meeting your weight loss goals or other achievements with something you would like to do, not with food. Choose rewards that you'll enjoy, such as a movie, music CD, an afternoon off from work, a massage, or personal time.
Reference: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
Last updated May 2017