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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 a weight at least 20% above the weight corresponding to the lowest death rate for individuals of a specific height, gender, and age (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. More recent guidelines for obesity use a measurement called BMI (body mass index) which is the individual’s weight multiplied by 703 and then divided by twice the height in inches. BMI of 25.9–29 is considered overweight; BMI over 30 is considered obese. Measurements and comparisons of waist and hip circumference can also provide some information regarding risk factors associated with weight. The higher the ratio, the greater the chance for weight-associated complications. Calipers can be used to measure skin-fold thickness to determine whether tissue is muscle (lean) or adipose tissue (fat).
Much concern has been generated about the increasing incidence of obesity among Americans. Some studies have noted an increase from 12% to 18% occurring between 1991 and 1998. Other studies have actually estimated that a full 50% of all Americans are overweight. The World Health Organization terms obesity a worldwide epidemic, and the diseases which can occur due to obesity are becoming increasingly prevalent.
Excessive weight can result in many serious, potentially life-threatening health problems, including hypertension, Type II diabetes mellitus (non-insulin dependent diabetes), increased risk for coronary disease, increased unexplained heart attack, hyperlipide-mia, 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, M.D., 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 the 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. 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 it 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. A sedentary lifestyle, particularly prevalent in affluent societies, such as in 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 affect his or her ability to lose weight. In childhood, excess calories are converted into new fat cells (hyper-plastic 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:
- Cushing’s syndrome, a disorder involving the excessive release of the hormone cortisol
- hypothyroidism, a condition caused by an underactive thyroid gland
- neurologic disturbances, such as damage to the hypothalamus, a structure located deep within the brain that helps regulate appetite
- consumption of such drugs as steroids, antipsychotic medications, or antidepressants
- arthritis and other orthopedic problems, such as lower back pain
- adult-onset asthma
- gum disease
- high cholesterol levels
- high blood pressure
- menstrual irregularities or cessation of menstruation (amenorhhea)
- decreased fertility, and pregnancy complications
- shortness of breath that can be incapacitating
- sleep apnea and sleeping disorders
- skin disorders arising from the bacterial breakdown of sweat and cellular material in thick folds of skin or from increased friction between folds
- emotional and social problems
Diagnosis of obesity is made by observation and by comparing the patient’s weight to ideal weight charts. Many doctors and obesity researchers refer to the body mass index (BMI), which uses a height-weight relationship to calculate an individual’s ideal weight and personal risk of developing obesity-related health problems. Physicians may also obtain direct measurements of an individual’s body fat content by using calipers to measure skin-fold thickness at the back of the upper arm and other sites. The most accurate means of measuring body fat content involves immersing a person in water and measuring relative displacement; however, this method is very impractical and is usually only used in scientific studies requiring very specific assessments. Women whose body fat exceeds 30% and men whose body fat exceeds 25% are generally considered obese.
Doctors may also note how a person carries excess weight on his or her body. Studies have shown that this factor may indicate whether or not an individual has a predisposition to develop certain diseases or conditions that may accompany obesity. ‘‘Apple-shaped’’ individuals who store most of their weight around the waist and abdomen are at greater risk for cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes than ‘‘pear-shaped’’ people whose extra pounds settle primarily in their hips and thighs.
Treatment of obesity depends primarily on how overweight a person is and his or her overall health. However, to be successful, any treatment must affect life-long behavioral changes rather than short-term weight loss. ‘‘Yo-yo’’ dieting, in which weight is repeatedly lost and regained, has been shown to increase a person’s likelihood of developing fatal health problems than if the weight had been lost gradually or not lost at all. Behavior-focused treatment should concentrate on:
- What and how much a person eats. This aspect may involve keeping a food diary and developing a better understanding of the nutritional value and fat content of foods. It may also involve changing grocery-shopping habits (e.g., buying only what is on a prepared list and only going on a certain day), timing of meals (to prevent feelings of hunger, a person may plan frequent, small meals), and actually slowing down the rate at which a person eats.
- How a person responds to food. This may involve understanding what psychological issues underlie a person’s eating habits. For example, one person may binge eat when under stress, while another may always use food as a reward. In recognizing these psychological triggers, an individual can develop alternate coping mechanisms that do not focus on food.
- How they spend their time. Making activity and exercise an integrated part of everyday life is a key to achieving and maintaining weight loss. Starting slowly and building endurance keeps individuals from becoming discouraged. Varying routines and trying new activities also keeps interest high.
For most individuals who are mildly obese, these behavior modifications entail life-style changes they can make independently while being supervised by a family physician. Other mildly obese persons may seek the help of a commercial weight-loss program (e.g., Weight Watchers). The effectiveness of these programs is difficult to assess, since programs vary widely, drop-out rates are high, and few employ members of the medical community. However, programs that emphasize realistic goals, gradual progress, sensible eating, and exercise can be very helpful and are recommended by many doctors. Programs that promise instant weight loss or feature severely restricted diets are not effective and, in some cases, can be dangerous.
For individuals who are severely obese, dietary changes and behavior modification may be accompanied by surgery to reduce or bypass portions of the stomach or small intestine. Although obesity surgery is less risky as of 2003 because of recent innovations in equipment and surgical technique, it is still performed only on patients for whom other strategies have failed and whose obesity seriously threatens their health. Other surgical procedures are not recommended, including liposuction, a purely cosmetic procedure in which a suction device is used to remove fat from beneath the skin, and jaw wiring, which can damage gums and teeth and cause painful muscle spasms.
Appetite-suppressant drugs are sometimes prescribed to aid in weight loss. These drugs work by increasing levels of serotonin or catecholamine, which are brain chemicals that control feelings of fullness. Appetite suppressants, though, are not considered truly effective, since most of the weight lost while taking them is usually regained after stopping them. Also, suppressants containing amphetamines can be potentially abused by patients. While most of the immediate side-effects of these drugs are harmless, the long-term effects of these drugs, in many cases, are unknown. Two drugs, dexfenfluramine hydro-chloride (Redux) and fenfluramine (Pondimin) as well as a combination fenfluramine-phentermine (Fen/Phen) drug, were taken off the market when they were shown to cause potentially fatal heart defects. In November 1997, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new weight-loss drug, sibutramine (Meridia). Available only with a doctor’s prescription, Meridia can significantly elevate blood pressure and cause dry mouth, headache, constipation, and insomnia. This medication should not be used by patients with a history of congestive heart failure, heart disease, stroke, or uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Other weight-loss medications available with a doctor’s prescription include:
- diethylpropion (Tenuate, Tenuate dospan)
- mazindol (Mazanor, Sanorex)
- phendimetrazine (Bontril, Plegine, Prelu-2, X-Trozine)
- phentermine (Adipex-P, Fastin, Ionamin, Oby-trim)
Phenylpropanolamine (Acutrim, Dextarim) is the only nonprescription weight-loss drug approved by the FDA These over-the-counter diet aids can boost weight loss by 5%. Combined with diet and exercise and used only with a doctor’s approval, prescription anti-obesity medications enable some patients to lose 10% more weight than they otherwise would. Most patients regain lost weight after discontinuing use of either prescription medications or nonprescription weight-loss products.
Prescription medications or over-the-counter weight-loss products can cause:
- dry mouth
None of them should be used by patients taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors).
Doctors sometimes prescribe fluoxetine (Prozac), an antidepressant that can increase weight loss by about 10%. Weight loss may be temporary and side effects of this medication include diarrhea, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, and thirst. Weight-loss drugs currently being developed or tested include ones that can prevent fat absorption or digestion; reduce the desire for food and prompt the body to burn calories more quickly; and regulate the activity of substances that control eating habits and stimulate overeating.
Acupressure and acupuncture can also suppress food cravings. Visualization and meditation can create and reinforce a positive self-image that enhances the patient’s determination to lose weight. By improving physical strength, mental concentration, and emotional serenity, yoga can provide the same benefits. Also, patients who play soft, slow music during meals often find that they eat less food but enjoy it more.
Getting the correct ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and good-quality fats can help in weight loss via enhancement of the metabolism. Support groups that are informed about healthy, nutritious, and balanced diets can offer an individual the support he or she needs to maintain this type of eating regimen.
As many as 85% of dieters who do not exercise on a regular basis regain their lost weight within two years. In five years, the figure rises to 90%. Repeatedly losing and regaining weight (yo yo dieting) encourages the body to store fat and may increase a patient’s risk of developing heart disease. The primary factor in achieving and maintaining weight loss is a life-long commitment to regular exercise and sensible eating habits.
Obesity experts suggest that a key to preventing excess weight gain is monitoring fat consumption rather than counting calories, and the National Cholesterol Education Program maintains that only 30% of calories should be derived from fat. Only one-third of those calories should be contained in saturated fats (the kind of fat found in high concentrations in meat, poultry, and dairy products). Because most people eat more than they think they do, keeping a detailed food diary is a useful way to assess eating habits. Eating three balanced, moderate-portion meals a day—with the main meal at mid-day—is a more effective way to prevent obesity than fasting or crash diets. Exercise increases the metabolic rate by creating muscle, which burns more calories than fat. When regular exercise is combined with regular, healthful meals, calories continue to burn at an accelerated rate for several hours. Finally, encouraging healthful habits in children is a key to preventing childhood obesity and the health problems that follow in adulthood.
The rapid rise in the incidence of obesity in the United States since 1990 has prompted researchers to look for new treatments. One approach involves the application of antidiabetes drugs to the treatment of obesity. Metformin (Glucophage), a drug that was approved by the Food and Dug Administration (FDA) in 1994 for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, shows promise in treating obesity associated with insulin resistance.
Another field of obesity research is the study of hormones, particularly leptin, which is produced by fat cells in the body, and ghrelin, which is secreted by cells in the lining of the stomach. Both hormones are known to affect appetite and the body’s energy balance. Leptin is also related to reproductive function, while ghrelin stimulates the pituitary gland to release growth hormone. Further studies of these two hormones may lead to the development of new medications to control appetite and food intake.
A third approach to obesity treatment involves research into the social factors that encourage or reinforce weight gain in humans. Researchers are looking at such issues as the advertising and marketing of food products; media stereotypes of obesity; the development of eating disorders in adolescents and adults; and similar questions.
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Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD Rebecca J. Frey, PhD