The most basic function of bodily fat is self-storage of food reserves. In prehistoric times, natural selection favored genotypes that could endure harsh conditions by stocking the most fat. With chronic malnutrition being the norm for most of human history, genetics evolved to favor fat storage. So when did body fat become problematic? The negative impacts of being overweight were not even noted in medical literature until as late as the 18th century.
Then, technological advances coupled with public health measures resulted in the betterment of the quantity, quality, and variety of food. Sustained abundance of good food enabled a healthier population to boom economically. Output increased, and with it, leisure time and waistlines. By the mid 19th century, being excessively overweight, or obese, was recognized as a cause of ill health, and another century later, declared deadly. What is the distinction between being overweight and being obese?
A calculation called the BMI breaks it down for us. For example, if someone weighs 65 kilgorams and is 1.5 meters tall, they have a BMI of about 29. Obesity is a condition of excess body fat that occurs when a person’s BMI is above 30, just over the overweight range of 25 to 29.9. While BMI can be a helpful estimate of healthy weight, actual body fat percentage can only really be determined by also considering information like waist circumference and muscle mass.
Athletes, for instance, have a naturally higher BMI. So how does a person become obese? At its most basic, obesity is caused by energy imbalance. If the energy input from calories is greater than the energy output from physical activity, the body stores the extra calories as fat. In most cases, this imbalance comes from a combination of circumstances and choices. Adults should be getting at least 2.5 hours of exercise each week, and children a whole hour per day.
But globally, one in four adults and eight out of ten adolescents aren’t active enough. Calorie-dense processed foods and growing portion sizes coupled with pervasive marketing lead to passive overeating. And scarce resources, and a lack of access to healthy, affordable foods creates an even greater risk in disadvantaged communities. Yet, our genetic makeup also plays a part. Studies on families and on separated twins have shown a clear causal hereditary relationship to weight gain. Recent studies have also found a link between obesity and variations in the bacteria species that live in our digestive systems.
No matter the cause, obesity is an escalating global epidemic. It substantially raises the probability of diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and cancer. It affects virtually all ages, genders, and socioeconomic groups in both developed and developing countries. With a 60% rise in child obesity globally over just two decades, the problem is too significant to ignore. Once a person is obese, the climb to recovery becomes progressively steeper.
Hormonal and metabolic changes reduce the body’s response to overeating. After losing weight, a formerly overweight person burns less calories doing the same exercises as a person who is naturally the same weight, making it much more difficult to shed the excess fat. And as people gain weight, damage to signaling pathways makes it increasingly difficult for the brain to measure food intake and fat storage. There is, however, some evidence that well-monitored, long-term changes in behavior can lead to improvements in obesity-related health issues.
And weight loss from sustained lifestyle changes, or invasive treatments like bariatric surgery, can improve insulin resistance and decrease inflammation. What was once an advantage for survival is now working against us. As the world’s population continues to slow down and get bigger, moving and consciously eating our way towards a healthier weight is essential to our overall well-being. And with the epidemic affecting every country in the world for different socioeconomic reasons, obesity cannot be seen as an isolated issue. More global measures for prevention are essential to manage the weight of the world.