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Obesity is an abnormal accumulation of body fat, usually 20% or more over an individual's ideal body weight. Obesity is associated with increased risk of illness, disability, and death.
The branch of medicine that deals with the study and treatment of obesity is known as bariatrics. As obesity has become a major health problem in the United States, bariatrics has become a separate medical and surgical specialty.
Obesity traditionally has been defined as body weight at least 20% above the weight corresponding to the lowest death rate for individuals of a specific height, sex, and age (designated as the ideal weight). Twenty to forty percent over ideal weight is considered mildly obese; 40–100% over ideal weight is considered moderately obese; and 100% over ideal weight is considered severely, or morbidly, obese. According to some estimates, approximately 25% of the United States population can be considered obese, 4 million of whom are morbidly obese. Other studies state that over 50% of American adults are obese, based on body mass index (BMI) measurements. Excessive weight can result in many serious, and potentially deadly, health problems, including hypertension, Type II diabetes mellitus (non-insulin dependent diabetes), increased risk for coronary disease, increased unexplained heart attack, hyperlipidemia, infertility, and a higher prevalence of colon, prostate, endometrial, and possibly, breast cancer. Approximately 300,000 deaths a year are attributed to obesity, prompting leaders in public health, such as former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to label obesity "the second leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States."
The mechanism for excessive weight gain is clear—more calories are consumed than the body burns, and the excess calories are stored as fat (adipose) tissue. However, the exact cause is not as clear and likely arises from a complex combination of factors. Genetic factors significantly influence how the body regulates appetite and the rate at which it turns food into energy (metabolic rate). Studies of adoptees confirm this relationship. The majority of adoptees followed a pattern of weight gain that more closely resembled that of their birth parents than their adoptive parents. A genetic predisposition to weight gain, however, does not automatically mean that a person will be obese. Eating habits and patterns of physical activity also play a significant role in the amount of weight a person gains.
Some recent studies have indicated that the amount of fat in a person's diet may have a greater impact on weight than the number of calories the food contains. Carbohydrates like cereals, breads, fruits and vegetables, and protein (fish, lean meat, turkey breast, skim milk) are converted to fuel almost as soon as they are consumed. Most fat calories are immediately stored in fat cells, which add to the body's weight and girth as they expand and multiply. There is continuing research on the theory that fat is metabolized as fuel and energy and that only excess carbohydrates are converted to stored fat. Current evidence shows that weight gain comes mostly from total calories consumed, rather than from the amount of carbohydrates. A study published in 2002 found that low-fat diets are no more effective in weight reduction programs than low-calorie diets. At any rate, a sedentary life-style, particularly prevalent in affluent societies like the United States, can contribute to weight gain. Psychological factors, such as depression and low self-esteem may, in some cases, also play a role in weight gain.
At what stage of life a person becomes obese can effect his or her ability to lose weight. In childhood, excess calories are converted into new fat cells (hyperplastic obesity), while excess calories consumed in adulthood only serve to expand existing fat cells (hypertrophic obesity). Since dieting and exercise can only reduce the size of fat cells, not eliminate them, persons who were obese as children can have great difficulty losing weight, since they may have up to five times as many fat cells as someone who became overweight as an adult.
Obesity can also be a side effect of certain disorders and conditions, including:
The major symptoms of obesity are excessive weight gain and the presence of large amounts of fatty tissue. Obesity can also give rise to several secondary conditions, including:
Author Info: Paula Ford-Martin, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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