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What is Obesity? What are its Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention?

What is Obesity

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Story At-A-Glance
  • Obesity is a disease, and a person with a BMI of over 30 kg/m2 is considered medically obese.
  • Obesity causes are low physical activity, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, genetic factors, psychological issues and personality traits, or societal factors.
  • Symptoms of obesity are back pain, joint pain, breathing problems, snoring, high blood pressure, irregular menstruation, varicose vessels, mood disorders, and various skin conditions.
  • Health risks of obesity are heart attack, diabetes, stroke, PCOS, GERD, esophageal cancer, osteoarthritis, and depression.
  • Prevention of obesity is possible with a healthy diet plan, increased physical activity, cutting down on drugs that increase weight, and being a part of inclusive activities.

What is Obesity?

Obesity is a medical condition classified as a disease by the American Heart Association and American Medical Association. The body presents excess fat in the form of adipose tissue – the excess body fat leads to adverse health effects.

Obesity is determined based on a person’s BMI. For instance, a person with a BMI of over 30 kg/m2 is considered medically obese. The condition can be further classified based on increasing BMI as morbid obesity, severe obesity, and super obesity. More than half a billion people suffer from this condition worldwide, and it is a leading cause of various diseases.

What is World Obesity Day?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 2 billion adults are overweight in the world today. Plus, as many as 650 million people are obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that from 1999-2000 to 2017-2018, the percentage of people suffering from severe obesity rose from 4.7% to 9.2%.

The World Obesity Federation, a sister organization of the WHO and contributing to the Lancet Commission of Obesity, has recognized the impact of obesity as a global healthcare crisis and aims to prevent and treat this condition.

The federation organizes an initiative called the ‘World Obesity Day,’ annually on the 4th of March, since March 2020. The initiative has been a part of the global anti-obesity movement since 2015.

World Obesity Day brings awareness about the obesity crisis, its economic impact, causes, and struggles of childhood obesity. World Obesity Day advocates changing eating habits, changing social attitudes towards obesity, treating obesity as a health issue, promoting effective & harmless treatments, and bringing together like-minded individuals and inspiring stories from the global community.

Common Obesity Causes

1. Diet

Diet is one of the primary causes – the consumption of sweetened beverages like soft drinks and snacks like potato chips and burgers are associated with increased calorie intake. According to various statistics, the consumption of fast-foods and energy-dense foods has increased five-fold times in the US in the last 40 years.

Also, the fact that processed food raw materials have become cheaper and nutritional foods have become costlier doesn’t help the effort to prevent obesity and makes it difficult to follow a healthy diet plan. The consumption of alcohol, carbonated beverages like beer, and snacking with drinking are risk factors for obesity – heavy drinking and binge drinking are even worse parameters.

2. Sedentary Lifestyle

Sedentary Lifestyle
A sedentary lifestyle complements an unhealthy diet and is one of the well-known obesity causes – decreased physical activity and exercise, more free time, and more time of the day spent indoors are infamous parameters.

According to studied trends, fewer recreational activities, utilization of mechanized transport instead of walking for commuting, and advanced technology contribute to obesity. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in the last 30 years, and more time spent watching TV, staying indoors, and a decrease in exercise are risk factors.

3. Genetics

Genetic abnormality[1] and hereditary factors are some of the rare causes that can alter metabolism and appetite, which can present as moderate to severe obesity. Various disorders or syndromes like Prader–Willi syndrome, Bardet–Biedl syndrome, Cohen syndrome, and MOMO syndrome manifest obesity as a symptom.

Prader-Willi Syndrome begins in childhood and results due to the loss of function of Chromosome 15, in which the paternal region is either absent or the maternal copy is imprinted twice – this is a genetic abnormality that can lead to symptoms secondary to obesity.

4. Diseases and psychological factors

Causes Obesity
Various diseases presenting hormonal imbalance can cause obesity – conditions like hypothyroidism, Cushing’s syndrome, growth hormone deficiency, polycystic ovary syndrome, and insulin resistance.

Obesity is understood to be a significant manifestation of the psychological state and mood. People with mood disorders, psychological disorders, and depression can involve themselves in unhealthy activities like binge eating and nighttime eating.

Often individuals chart out a healthy diet plan, only to succumb to stress and start binge eating again. A Harvard study confirms the link between obesity and depression and suggests people at risk should seek counseling.

5. Medications

There are more than a few medicines that can lead to weight gain and obesity. These effects are unwanted side effects due to various biological mechanisms. Some ways in which medicines can lead to obesity are by stimulating appetite, altering body metabolism towards fats and carbohydrates, retaining fluids in the body, impaired sugar absorption, and increasing fat storage.

Some drugs that cause obesity are:

  • Diabetes medications: insulin, thiazolidinediones, and sulphonylureas.
  • Blood pressure medications: beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and alpha-blockers.
  • Steroids: oral contraceptive pills, chemotherapy drugs, and corticosteroids.
  • Psychotropic drugs: antidepressants, antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, and mood stabilizers.

6. Social factors

Several types of research and academic papers are published to establish a relation between social class and BMI. The Spirit Level, a book by British social epidemiologist Richard G Wilkinson states that class inequality can lead to more anxiety, psychological disorders, obsessive behaviors, and excessive consumption of unhealthy food.

An Oxford academic research finds that low socioeconomic status in developing countries can prevent people from consuming nutritious food, which is on the costlier spectrum. Consumption of sugar-rich or carbohydrate-stuffed food[2] is more commonplace than before due to an increasing sedentary lifestyle.

Symptoms of Obesity

Symptoms of Obesity

1. Breathing problems:

Symptoms include dyspnea, orthopnea, wheezing, snoring, and other asthma-like symptoms. Fat accumulation in the thoracic and abdominal cavities can increase intra-abdominal and pleural space pressure.

An increase in pressure impacts the diaphragm and chest wall movement; this can change the airflow in the lungs and expiration rate. Compromised lung function can also impact physical activity and exercise in obese people. The effect of obesity on lung function is studied in various academic sources.

2. Joint pain and backache

One of the common symptoms is to look for frequent face joint pain and back pain due to a high BMI, which puts pressure on the knee joints, hips, and backbone. A study by Johns Hopkins Arthritis Centre has found that being in the overweight criteria by 10 pounds can increase pressure on the knee 4-5 times that of your weight.

Another factor that can lead to osteoarthritis in obese individuals is the inflammatory action of adipokines on knee tissue and bones. The adipose tissue stores fat cells and also an endocrine gland; it secretes adipokines. An increase in adipose tissue density can cause increased secretion of adipokines and inflammation-induced arthritis.

3. Skin problems

This is one of the symptoms of obesity that is often overlooked. It can cause some common skin issues like stretch marks and acne; hormone changes can lead to dark patches around the neck, increased skin surface area presents skin folds that can trap moisture from sweat and lead to a foul odor and fungal infections.

It can manifest more severe skin conditions like acrochordons, keratosis pilaris, cellulite, feet calluses, and plantar hyperkeratosis.

Obesity is also associated with candida infections, psoriasis, rosacea, atopic dermatitis, and cutaneous gout manifestations. Some academic papers suggest that obesity can alter wound healing properties.

4. Gastrointestinal problems

Some of the health risks of obesity include several gastrointestinal issues and serious conditions. Adipokines are hormones secreted by the adipose tissue and take part in metabolic functions. Various adipokines like leptin and resistin in increased concentrations have cancerous properties[3]. These are associated with colon cancer, esophageal cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, endometrial cancer, and breast cancer.

It is also associated with hyperacidity, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, Barrett’s esophagus, diarrhea, erosive esophagitis, inflammatory bowel disease, IBD, and other digestive disorders.

5. Irregular menstruation

A cross-sectional study was carried out on 250 students of reproductive age to derive the relationship between irregular menstruation and obesity. As per the statistics obtained, studies concluded that weight gain and increased adipose tissue lead to altered concentrations of androgens, estrogens, and sex-hormone binding globulin.

It was observed that an increase in androgens leads to negligible menstruation; on the other hand, an increase in fat tissue is associated with higher levels of estrogen. Therefore, a fluctuation in sex hormones presents irregular menstruation in young women and female school students.

Irregular menstruation

Health Risks of Obesity

1. Diseases

Some health risks are cardiovascular diseases like coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction, hypertension, congestive heart failure, and hypercholesterolemia. Increased body fat, cholesterol, and low physical activity are contributing factors.

2. Chronic pain

Common obesity causes such as an unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle can lead to various health risks like diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, and lower back pain.

3. Reproductive issues

Obesity leads to reproductive issues in women like polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, irregular menstruation, complications during pregnancy, and various congenital disabilities in the fetus.

4. Lifestyle

There are various neurological health risks of obesity like stroke, migraines, carpal tunnel syndrome, dementia, and multiple sclerosis that can severely impact the body.

Some of the causes of obesity are mood disorders, depression, and eating disorders. Consequently, obesity can act as a loop mechanism and contribute to more psychological distress in the form of anxiety, bipolar syndrome, and obsessive behavior.

5. May lead to cancer

One of the significant symptoms of obesity is an increase in adipose tissue density. Adipose tissue secretes hormones called adipokines; these hormones are various types like leptin, resistin, TNF, and more.

Leptin and resistin have inflammatory properties. These hormones in higher concentrations have tumorous properties and contribute to the growth of various cancers and cancer cells. Some of them are esophageal cancer, gallbladder cancer, endometrial cancer, and leukemia.

Prevention of Obesity

Prevention of Obesity

1. A healthy diet plan is needed for the prevention of obesity

Restrict yourself from consuming sweetened beverages like soft drinks and processed fruit beverages. Gradually cut down your junk food, fast food, and high-fat diet consumption. If you consume alcohol daily, practice binge drinking and snacking, then enter yourself into a program, slowly reduce your alcohol consumption.

2. Make a list of your healthy diet plan

Include various vegetables, fruits, legumes, cereals, protein-rich meat, omega-3 rich seafood, and nuts. You can gradually start with one healthy food at a time; this will help your self-esteem and contribute to the prevention of obesity.

3. Exercise

Along with a healthy diet plan, you also need sufficient physical activity and exercise for the prevention of obesity. Signing up for an extreme exercise routine can be intimidating and usually ends up in failure; take small steps, jog for 5-10 minutes daily and gradually increase your duration.

4. Check your medications

If you are on medications that contribute to the causes of obesity, inform your physician immediately. You should also stop taking supplements or herbal remedies if they are obesity causes.

5. Seek help if you need

Prevention of obesity is not just about consuming a proper diet, exercise, and cutting out supplements – visit a counselor or talk to a trusted person if you are in psychological distress, have mood disorders or eating disorders.


Obesity is a global crisis that needs to be addressed immediately. The various obesity causes and associated health risks are preventable by a healthy diet plan, exercise, counseling help, and early screening of fetuses.

Understand that obesity can manifest into severe conditions that affect the heart, lungs, digestive system, gastrointestinal tract, endocrine system, reproductive system (in females), body posture and skeletal system, and psychological health.

The World Obesity Federation has taken a positive initiative by commemorating World Obesity Day to help sufferers and people seeking guidance. Through this portal, the Federation brings together like-minded people who can share their success stories and inspire change.

World Obesity Day also brings awareness to obesity as a serious health issue and prevents associating it with a social stigma. The initiative sheds light on various obesity causes, symptoms, health risks, and steps to take for the prevention of obesity.

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