10 Health Risks of Obesity and How to Prevent Them

Overview

Obesity is a condition in which a person has a harmful amount of body fat or an unhealthy distribution of body fat. It raises the risk for several serious health complications. Excess body fat puts strain on the bones and organs. It also causes complex changes in hormones and metabolism and increases inflammation in the body.

People with obesity have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. You can calculate your BMI using an online calculator. You only need to know your height and weight.

Having a risk factor like obesity doesn't mean that you'll develop the following health problems. But it does increase your chances of developing one or more of them. Here are 10 health risks of obesity and what you can do to prevent or manage them.

1. Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes occurs when your blood sugar is higher than normal. Over time, this can lead to other health issues, like heart disease, nerve damage, stroke, kidney disease, and vision problems.

If you have obesity, losing just 5 to 7 percent of your body weight and getting regular, moderate exercise may prevent or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes.

2. Heart disease

Heart disease is more prevalent in people with obesity. Over time, fatty deposits may accumulate in the arteries that supply the heart with blood. People with obesity have higher than normal blood pressure, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar, all of which contribute to heart disease.

Arteries that become narrow can lead to a heart attack. Blood clots in narrow arteries can result in a stroke.

3. Stroke

Stroke and heart disease share many of the same risk factors. Strokes occur when the blood supply to the brain is cut off. A stroke can cause damage to brain tissue and result in a range of disabilities, including speech and language impairment, weakened muscles, and changes to thinking and reasoning skills.

A 2010 review of 25 studies with almost 2.3 million participants found that obesity increased the risk of stroke by 64 percent.

4. Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which someone may momentarily stop breathing during sleep.

People who are overweight and living with obesity are at a higher risk of having sleep apnea. This is because they tend to have more fat stored around the neck, making the airway shrink. A smaller airway can cause snoring and difficulty breathing at night.

Losing weight can help decrease the amount of fat in the neck and lower the risk of sleep apnea.

5. High blood pressure

Extra fat tissue in the body requires more oxygen and nutrients. Your blood vessels will need to circulate more blood to the extra fat tissue. This means your heart must work even harder to pump blood around the body.

The increase in the amount of blood circulating puts extra pressure on the walls of your arteries. This added pressure is called high blood pressure, or hypertension. Over time, high blood pressure can damage your heart and arteries.

6. Liver disease

People with obesity can develop a liver disease known as fatty liver disease or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). This happens when excess fat builds up in the liver. The excess fat can damage the liver or cause scar tissue to grow, known as cirrhosis.

Fatty liver disease usually has no symptoms, but it can eventually lead to liver failure. The only way to reverse or manage the disease is to lose weight, exercise, and avoid drinking alcohol.

7. Gallbladder disease

The gallbladder is responsible for storing a substance known as bile and passing it to the small intestine during digestion. Bile helps you digest fats.

Obesity increases your risk of developing gallstones. Gallstones occur when bile builds up and hardens in the gallbladder. People with obesity may have higher levels of cholesterol in their bile, or have large gallbladders that don't work well, which can lead to gallstones. Gallstones can be painful and require surgery.

Eating a diet high in fiber and healthy fats may help prevent gallstones. Avoiding refined grains like white rice, bread, and pasta can also help.

8. Certain cancers

Because cancer isn't a single disease, the association between obesity and cancer isn't as clear as other diseases like heart disease and stroke. Still, obesity can increase your risk for certain cancers, including breast, colon, gallbladder, pancreatic, kidney, and prostate cancer, as well as cancer of the uterus, cervix, endometrium, and ovaries.

One population-based study estimated that about 28,000 new cases of cancer in men and 72,000 in women in 2012 were associated with being overweight or having obesity in the United States.

9. Pregnancy complications

Pregnant women who are overweight or have obesity are more likely to develop insulin resistance, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. This can increase the risk of complications during pregnancy and delivery, including:

  • gestational diabetes
  • preeclampsia
  • needing a cesarean delivery (C-section)
  • blood clots
  • heavier bleeding than normal after delivery
  • premature birth
  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth
  • defects of the brain and spinal cord

In one study, over 60 percent of women with a BMI of 40 or greater when they got pregnant ended up having one of these complications. If you're overweight or have obesity and are thinking about having a baby, you may want begin a weight management plan to avoid the above health risks. Talk to your doctor about physical activity you can safely do during pregnancy.

10. Depression

Many people affected by obesity experience depression. Some studies have found a strong correlation between obesity and major depressive disorder.

People affected by obesity may often experience discrimination based on their body size. Over time, this can lead to feelings of sadness or lack of self-worth.

Today, many advocacy groups, such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), are working to eliminate discrimination based on body size. These organizations provide opportunities to get involved in fighting against this discrimination.

If you have obesity and are experiencing symptoms of depression, ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health counselor.

How to lower your risk

Losing as little as 5 percent of your body weight can lower your risk for several of these health conditions, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

A combination of diet and exercise can help you lose the weight slowly over time. There's no need to make drastic changes to your lifestyle. The key is to be consistent and to continue making healthy choices.

For exercise, aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity. This can include a brisk walk – just 30 minutes of walking per day will help you meet this goal. Once you've gotten the hang of it, try increasing your exercise to 300 minutes per week. Also, try to include strengthening activities like pushups or situps into your routine at least twice a week.

A few ways to eat healthier include:

  • Fill half your plate with vegetables.
  • Replace unrefined grains, like white bread, pasta, and rice with whole grains like whole wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal.
  • Eat lean sources of protein, such as lean chicken, seafood, beans, and soy.
  • Cut out fried foods, fast foods, and sugary snacks.
  • Avoid sugary drinks, like sodas and juice.
  • Avoid alcohol.

Ask your doctor if you're a good candidate for weight loss surgery or medications. These treatments can help you lose weight more quickly, but still require a commitment to the above lifestyle changes.

Takeaway

Obesity can impact both your physical health and your mental health. You may be unsure of where to begin, but taking steps now to manage your health can prevent you from complications like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about exercising more, eating a healthier diet, seeing a therapist, and other treatment methods.

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