What is obesity?
Being overweight or obese is defined as having an abnormal level of fat accumulation in the body that may impair normal health. Body mass index (BMI) (person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2) is the standard index used to classify overweight and obesity in adults.
According to WHO a BMI greater than or equal to 25 qualifies a person as overweight and a BMI greater than or equal to 30 means obesity.
Before getting started on how it harms the body, let’s take a look at some data that showcases how major problem obesity has become today:
- In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults (20 and older) were overweight globally. Of these, 200 million men and about 300 million women were obese.
- Worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 2008.
- 65 per cent of world’s population lives in countries where being overweight and obese kills more people than underweight.
- In 2012, more than 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese.
(Facts according to World Health Organisation, WHO)
One might think that India, being a developing country, does not suffer from the growing epidemic of obesity that is affecting the world. However, a recent report by London-based The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled ‘Future Diets’ studied dietary trends in five middle-income countries like India, China, Peru, Egypt and Thailand.
The report revealed that the number of people affected by obesity has tripled from 250 million to 904 million between 1980 and 2008. The percentage of obese and overweight in India rose from about nine per cent of the total population in 1980 to 11 per cent in 2008.
What causes obesity and overweight?
The principal reason for obesity and overweight is an imbalance between calories consumed and calories spent, over a course of time. This can result from:
- An increased intake of energy-dense foods that are rich in fat
- A decrease in physical activity that may result from a sedentary nature of work, choice of transportation, or urbanized lifestyle
Changes in dietary and physical activity patterns mostly result from societal and environmental factors that affect lifestyle and habits.
Obesity sometimes runs in families, though there is no concrete evidence to link genetics and obesity. Obesity in families could also be due to similar eating and activity habits.
What happens in an obese or overweight condition?
A high BMI level puts a person at risk of major non-communicable health diseases like:
- Cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke)
- Musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis (degenerative disease of the joints)
- Some types of cancers (breast, colon, endometrial)
Obesity in children is also becoming a cause of concern today, and is associated with higher risk of premature death and disability in adulthood while also exposing children to breathing difficulties, increased risk to fractures, hypertension, early onset of cardiovascular diseases, insulin resistance and psychological effects.
In a country like India, the issue is double-edged, as there is an increased risk of infectious diseases and under-nutrition on one hand, and a rapid rise in risk factors associated with obesity and overweight, especially in urban regions, on the other.
While there is an issue of inadequate nutrition, people are also being exposed to high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat, energy-dense foods that may be cheaper or easier to access, but poor in nutrient quality. Together with low levels of physical activity, such dietary patterns are increasingly putting adults and children alike in an obesity high-risk group.
How can the issue of obesity be tackled?
Today, obesity is counted as one of the most visible yet neglected public health problem. It is increasingly acquiring ‘epidemic’ status across the world (globesity). The challenge in tackling the problem of obesity lies in its spread across all ages and socio-economic groups. The health consequences of obesity range from diet-related non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer to premature death and serious chronic conditions that severely affect life.
The good news is that obesity, overweight and their associated non-communicable diseases, are preventable in the first place. Obesity can be prevented or controlled by reshaping certain lifestyle choices in eating and activity.
At an individual level, people can take the following steps:
- Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole-grains, legumes and nuts
- Limit energy intake of fats and sugars
- Engage in physical activity for at least 30 minutes on most days a week
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“Indians adding to world obesity problem: Report,” TimesofIndia.com, January 4 2014, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Indians-adding-to-world-obesity-problem-Report/articleshow/28395856.cms
“Obesity,” MedlinePlus, NLM, NIH, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/obesity.html
“Obesity,” NHS.uk, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obesity/pages/introduction.aspx
“Obesity and overweight Factsheet,” World Health Organisation, WHO, Page Reviewed May 2014, https://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/