Obesity is one of the most common health concerns affecting Americans today. Although women of all sizes can be healthy, an excess of body fat is correlated with an increased risk of many chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.
When making a commitment to lose weight, many women have an ideal weight in mind. Setting goals can help you stay motivated, but studies show that losing even a little weight can have a positive impact on your health.
Doctors typically diagnose obesity with the help of a tool called the body mass index (BMI). Your BMI is calculated by dividing your mass in kilograms by your height in meters squared. You can find your BMI using a BMI chart, or there are many online tools that can calculate your BMI for you. The results are then categorized into different classes, which are used as estimates of your weight status.
- Under 18.5 – Underweight
- 5-24.9 – Normal weight
- 0-29.9 – Overweight
- 0-34.9 – Obese (class I)
- 0-39.9 – Obese (class II)
- 0 and above – Morbidly obese / Extreme obesity (class III)
The body mass index is an estimate – not a direct measurement – of body fat. It is a simple tool that compares only two health variables, and therefore, it is not a perfect indicator of obesity or health. For example, muscular athletes may have very little body fat but a large amount of muscle mass. They would register on the higher end of the BMI calculator due to their weight, but they may not be considered obese.
In addition to calculating your BMI, your doctor will conduct a full exam to evaluate your health. Some other tests may include:
- Performing a physical exam, including checking the blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.
- Measuring the circumference of the waist. Women with a waist greater than 35” and men with a waist greater than 40” have increased health risks.
- Taking a blood sample. Your doctor will often to check cholesterol levels, liver function, thyroid function, and blood sugar.
Causes of Obesity
Obesity can have several interacting causes. Some of these causes are within our control, and some of them are not. When we burn fewer calories than we expend in our daily activities, the excess calories are stored as body fat. There may be several reasons why this occurs.
Diet and eating habits
Excessive eating and routinely choosing high-calorie foods and beverages will increase your risk of obesity.
Our modern lifestyles can make it challenging to allow time for regular exercise. If you are not very physically active, it will be difficult to burn the excess calories you consume in the day. These excess calories will then be stored as fat.
Your predisposition to obesity also depends upon your metabolism – the rate at which your body burns calories – as well as other health variables. These bodily processes are often determined by one’s genetic make-up. Studies have shown that heredity can influence your risk of obesity, the way fat is distributed on your body, and how efficiently your body uses calories consumed.
Other diseases or conditions
Thyroid disease, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and Cushing’s Syndrome are rare conditions that can cause obesity.
Some medications, such as certain antidepressants, antipsychotic medications, anti-seizure medications, and steroids can increase your risk for obesity.
Children and adults of any age can become obese, but the risk of obesity tends to increase with age. As people age, changes in hormones and lifestyle tend to contribute to weight gain. For a variety of reasons, many people decrease their physical activity level as they get older, which decreases muscle mass and slows the metabolism.
Lack of sleep
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to obesity.
Although smoking is never a healthy way to control one’s weight, quitting smoking is often linked to weight gain.
It is normal and healthy for a woman to gain weight while she is pregnant, but losing the excess weight after pregnancy can be difficult. If unsuccessful, it may lead to obesity.
Socioeconomic and cultural factors
Researchers have studied the effects of socioeconomic status and risk of obesity. For many families, healthy, unprocessed foods are unavailable in the areas where they live or are simply too expensive. It may be difficult to get exercise if you work long hours, live in an unsafe area, and/or are unable to afford a gym membership. Cultural factors may play a role as well. We learn our eating and cooking habits from our parents, and some of these habits may be unhealthy.
Health Problems Associated with Obesity
Obesity is linked to many serious health conditions. Losing weight can reduce your risk of complications such as:
- High cholesterol
- Type II diabetes
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Heart disease
- Metabolic syndrome
- Sleep apnea and other respiratory disorders
- Cancer, especially breast, cervical, ovarian, endometrial, and uterine cancers. Risk of rectum, colon, liver, pancreatic, kidney, and gallbladder cancer is increased as well.
- Irregular periods
- Gallbladder disease
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease – inflammation of the liver due to an excess of fat
The goal of treating obesity is to get the patient to reach and maintain a healthy weight. For some patients, losing the weight is easy compared to keeping it off long-term. Fad diets often fail to help people stay at a healthy weight. Your gynecologist may refer you to a dietitian or a behavior counselor to help you to make the necessary lifestyle changes.
Your specialist will help you learn new habits that can keep your weight under control, including:
- Tracking and reducing calorie intake
- Replacing high-calorie foods with healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables
- Choosing plant-based foods and lean proteins
- Limiting intake of added sugars, high-carbohydrate, and full-fatty foods
- Making exercise a part of your normal routine
For certain patients, weight-loss medication can be used effectively alongside diet and exercise. Xenical, Belviq, Contrave, and Saxenda are among the more popular weight loss drugs. Drugs are typically not a long-term solution for maintaining a healthy weight. Doctors will usually only prescribe medication to patients who have:
- A BMI of 30 or greater
- A BMI of 27 or greater, plus an additional diagnosis of an obesity-related condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
Weight loss surgery
Weight loss surgery, also known as bariatric surgery, is a procedure that reduces the capacity of the stomach, thereby limiting the amount of food that it is possible to consume and absorb into the body. Bariatric surgery is extremely effective at helping patients shed pounds, but it can be a risky procedure and requires sacrifices on the part of the patient. Typically, doctors will only recommend surgery if the patient has been unable to lose weight by other methods and if the patient has:
- A BMI of 40 or greater
- A BMI of 35 or greater, plus an additional diagnosis of an obesity-related condition
- Committed to making drastic diet and lifestyle changes
Maintaining a Healthy Weight after Weight Loss
Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to keep excess weight off once it is lost. It’s very common for patients to regain weight after a few months of successful weight loss. This is why it is important to commit to lifestyle changes and forming new, healthy habits for the rest of your life.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy weight. Try to get at least an hour a day of aerobic exercise. This can be as simple as taking daily walks or playing outside with your children or grandchildren. Enlist the support of your family and friends to help you make healthy choices and encourage you in your weight loss goals.