The relationship between excess weight and the risk of illness has been known since the time of the ancient Greeks.
Yet, the epidemic of obesity experienced in the United States and other Western cultures in the last few decades has made this relationship more clear.
Countless studies now link overweight status to various diseases, including Type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, cancer, gallbladder disease and osteoarthritis. The list goes on and on. In addition, there is a definitive link between rising overweight status and death from all causes.
The problem of obesity has been getting worse. In the U.S., in 2016, nearly four in 10 adults were obese, a rate that has almost doubled since the late 1980s. Risk factors for obesity are well-known and many are linked to various lifestyle factors influenced by Western culture.
Sedentariness, lack of regular exercise and dietary habits that favor meat, sugar and processed foods are all contributing factors. With rising rates of obesity, there is also a perception of normalcy associated with increased weights.
There has also been a tendency to label and socially isolate obese people when in fact, like so many other taboos related to health, they are the victims of a disease. Obesity is a public health problem with consequences for people.
This disease process knows no boundaries, affecting men and women, the rich and the poor, people of various educational levels and all races and ethnicities. While it is true that some groups suffer disproportionately, it is also true that the solution must be a collective one.
The prevention and management of obesity focuses on risk factors and lifestyle modification. Reducing inactivity in public and private spaces, increasing time devoted to exercise and dietary habits that favor whole grains, fresh produce and seafood over high-calorie, fatty and processed foods are all effective strategies.
Public policy that encourages, promotes and enables healthy lifestyle choices is a critical component in addressing the obesity epidemic. Examples include school physical education programs, creating safe and convenient spaces for activity and ensuring access to affordable quality nutritious foods.
Equally important is education and awareness about the problem, risk factors and healthy lifestyle choices along with the elimination of taboos that link physical attributes to perceived character deficits.
Obesity is a disease with broader health consequences for the community. It not only increases risk of death and disability among people but also raises health care costs, reduces productivity and constrains public resources.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.