A Heavyweight Problem

Obesity and Health Education
We are what we eat, but it seems that more and more of us around the world are eating too much or too many of the wrong things. In terms of economic impact, obesity costs nearly as much as smoking or the combined impact of armed violence, war and terrorism, according to a recent report.

The McKinsey Global Institute claims that the global cost of obesity has risen to $2 trillion annually, equivalent to 2.8 % of global gross domestic product (GDP), placing it among the top three social programs generated by human beings.

“Obesity isn't just a health issue; it's a major economic and business challenge,” argues one of the report's authors, Richard Dobbs. Some 2.1 billion people — about 30 percent of the global population— are overweight or obese and some 15% of healthcare costs in developed economies are driven by the problem. What’s more, it is also becoming an issue in emerging markets.

Percentage of overweight and obese adults

According to MGI, nearly half the world's adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030 if present trends continue. The financial costs of obesity are growing both within healthcare systems and in the wider economy: by causing illness, obesity results in working days and output is lost. 

Acknowledging that there are no simple solutions to deal with such an epidemic, the report’s authors urge a systemic approach. Among the initiatives assessed for their effectiveness are portion control for some packaged food and the reformulation of fast and processed food

Health issues

Obesity is linked with a number of health issues prevalent in society. These include: diabetes; heart disease; high blood pressure; arthritis; indigestion; gallstones; some cancers such as breast and prostate cancers; snoring and sleep apnoea; stress, anxiety and depression; and infertility. 

How can we tell if we’re obese?

The most common way to assess whether we are obese is to check our body mass index (BMI), which divides an individual’s weight in kilograms by the height in metres squared.

For most adults: 

  • BMI of 25 to 29.9 means they are considered overweight
  • BMI of 30 to 39.9 means they are considered obese
  • BMI of 40 or above means they are considered severely obese 

However, the BMI equation has been around for 150 years or so and there are exceptions, for instance where bodybuilders have a high BMI but little fat on their bodies. The traditional BMI is also less accurate at predicting obesity at extremes of height – for the short or the very tall. A new formula from Oxford University suggests that a more accurate calculation is: (weight x 1.3)/height2.5

Main causes of obesity

Obesity is most frequently caused by consuming more calories – particularly those in fatty and sugary foods – than we burn off through physical activity. In such situations, excess energy is stored by the body as fat. This was, at one time, a vital adaptation for humans living a hunter-gatherer existence. 

In modern times, however, obesity is an increasingly common problem, because many current lifestyles often promote eating excessive amounts of cheap, high-calorie food and spending a lot of time sitting at desks, on chairs or in cars.

Treating obesity

The UK’s NHS choices website suggests that the best way to treat obesity is to eat a healthy, reduced-calorie diet and to exercise regularly. To do this, health policy experts recommend we should:

  • Eat a balanced, calorie-controlled diet as recommended by your doctor or weightloss management health professional (such as a dietitian)
  • Join a local weightloss group
  • take up activities such as fast walking, jogging, swimming or tennis for 150-300 minutes a week
  • Eat slowly and avoid situations where you know you could be tempted to overeat

Overweight individuals may also benefit from psychological support from a trained healthcare professional, to help change the way we think about food and eating.

If lifestyle changes alone don't help us lose weight, clinicians may recommend a medication called Orlistat; this works by reducing the amount of the fat we absorb during digestion. In rare cases, weight loss surgery may be recommended. 

Brain research

We’ll come back to some of the neurological and behavioural issues around nutrition and weight gain in the context of reward and addiction in future blog post.  Make sure you stay tuned

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