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The health risks associated with being obese or overweight

By Apollo 24/7, Published on - 17 August 2021

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Obesity is a complex problem that affects millions of people all over the world. The growing incidence of obesity can be attributed to a combination of factors, such as poor diet, low physical activity, medical causes and other issues. Though it is common, obesity can trigger a wide range of medical conditions.

Having excess body weight doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual will develop all the health complications associated with being overweight or obese. Nevertheless, it can increase the chances of developing them. 

What are the health risks posed by overweight and obesity?

Being overweight or obese can significantly raise the risk of several health problems.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a lifelong disease that causes the body’s blood glucose levels to remain chronically higher than normal. The condition occurs when the cells in the muscles, fat, and liver become resistant to insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas. Insulin helps cells convert the glucose from food into energy. To overcome insulin resistance, the pancreas initially releases more insulin to get the glucose into cells. Nevertheless, over time, it cannot keep up and the glucose ends up entering the bloodstream instead.

The condition increases the risk of other health problems such as heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, renal disease, and vision problems. It mostly affects people who are overweight or obese. Obesity adversely affects the way the cells utilize insulin to control blood glucose levels, thereby increasing the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Hypertension

Hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, is a condition in which the force exerted by the circulating blood against the walls of the blood vessels is higher than normal. The high force exerted by the circulating blood gradually damages the arteries. This lessens the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. To restore the normal flow of blood and oxygen, the heart starts pumping harder. Over time, this increases the risk of serious health problems like cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and kidney failure.

People who are overweight and obese are at a higher risk of hypertension and its complications. Such people usually have extra fat tissue in their bodies. This extra fat tissue increases the requirement for blood and oxygen. To provide blood and oxygen to this extra fat tissue, the heart has to pump blood even harder. The rise in the blood flow puts extra pressure on the walls of the blood vessels. This added blood pressure can cause or worsen hypertension.

High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is found in the blood. It is produced naturally in the liver. The substance plays a key role in the formation of cell membranes, some hormones, and vitamin D. To help cholesterol travel via blood, the liver makes lipoproteins which are particles made up of fat and protein. Lipoproteins are of two major types - low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). When the blood contains too much LDL cholesterol, it’s called high cholesterol.

The condition can result in atherosclerosis (accumulation of fatty deposits in the blood vessels). As these fatty deposits increase in size, they make it difficult for blood to circulate through arteries. Occasionally, these deposits can rupture and form a clot. If the blood enters the coronary artery and blocks the supply of blood to the heart muscle, it results in a heart attack. Similarly, if the blood clot happens to obstruct the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, it leads to a stroke.

High cholesterol mostly affects overweight and obese people who consume large amounts of fatty foods. Nevertheless, the condition can also be caused by low physical activity, smoking, and drinking alcohol.

Cardiovascular Diseases (CVDs)

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) is a term that is used to refer to a group of disorders that affect the heart and blood vessels. People who have a CVD are at a greater risk of abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), angina, heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. The risk of CVD is especially high for people with other medical conditions like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high levels of blood fats or lipids (such as low-density lipoprotein LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides).

According to research, CVDs are more common in people who are overweight or obese than others. The high prevalence of CVDs in such people can be attributed to the presence of large amounts of fatty deposits in their bodies. Some of this fat often gets accumulated in the blood vessels (arteries) and restricts the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart. Moreover, overweight and obese people are also at a greater risk of higher than normal blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood glucose levels, all of which contribute to cardiovascular diseases.

Depression

Depression, also known as clinical depression, is a common yet serious mental disorder. It is characterized by a pervasive low mood that affects how an individual feels, thinks, and handles routine activities. Some of the most common symptoms of depression are low self-esteem, low energy, loss of interest in favorite activities, inexplicable pain, and in some cases, delusions or hallucinations. A person is diagnosed with depression if the symptoms persist for at least 2 weeks.

According to research, both obesity and depression tend to feed off each other as part of a vicious circle. Overweight and obese individuals are more likely to face bias and discrimination because of their body size. Over time, this can lead to feelings of sadness, lack of self-worth, rejection, shame, or guilt —further worsening mental health issues. Similarly, people who are depressed are more likely to have less energy, avoid physical activity, overeat, and become overweight or obese.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a common, long-lasting joint condition that can affect the knee, hip, or back. The condition occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones gets damaged over time. Some of the most common symptoms of osteoarthritis are pain, swelling, and reduced motion in your joints.

Doctors say that being overweight and obese can significantly increase the risk of getting osteoarthritis. The excess body weight exerts extra pressure on the joints and wears away the protective cartilage that normally protects them. The inflammation-causing proteins released by excess fat in the body can also worsen the inflammation in the joints.  

Certain cancers

Cancer is a term that is used to refer to a collection of related diseases. In almost all types of cancer, some of the cells inside the body begin to divide aggressively and spread into surrounding tissues. Since cancer isn’t a single disease, the link between obesity and cancer isn’t as clear as other diseases. Nevertheless, multiple hypotheses have been put forward to suggest how obesity might increase the risks of some cancers.

According to researchers, obese people often suffer from conditions or disorders that cause chronic low-level inflammation. It is believed that, over time, this chronic low-level inflammation causes DNA damage that leads to cancer. This association might put obese people at an increased risk of esophageal cancer, gallbladder cancer, liver cancers, etc.

There are also some studies that believe that excess hormone (estrogen) released by fat tissue is responsible for increased risk of breast, endometrial, ovarian, and some other cancers in obese people. Other possible mechanism includes the presence of high levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) in obese people that may promote the development of colon, kidney, prostate, and endometrial cancers.

Severe COVID-19

People who are overweight or obese are at a greater risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms. According to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity can triple the risk of hospitalization due to a COVID-19 infection. The elevated risk of hospitalization can be attributed to the ability of obesity to impair immune function. Obesity can also decrease lung capacity and can make ventilation more difficult. Obesity is also a risk factor for diabetes, a condition that increases the risk of COVID-19 infections in general. Obese patients with severe COVID-19 may also present challenges in inpatient management as it is more difficult to intubate patients with obesity.

Conclusion

Being overweight or obese has the potential to adversely affect physical, mental, and overall health. It can also take a severe toll on the quality of life. Health experts recommend that people who are at risk of obesity should take effective measures to shed excess body weight. Reducing excess body weight can play a pivotal role in averting the health risks associated with obesity. Regular exercise, a nutritious low-calorie diet, and a low intake of processed, fatty, and sugary foods and beverages are some of the basic steps that can be taken to start the weight loss journey. People who are unable to lose weight due to medical reasons must consult their physician to know more about various treatment options.

For any questions on weight management, you can talk to a dietitian.

You can also explore a range of weight management products to help you maintain a healthy weight.

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