It’s not nice to think about, but being obese can have damaging effects on our health. So often people lose weight for superficial reasons, like looking good naked or fitting into smaller clothes, with ‘improving my health’ an abstract footnote on our list of reasons. So what exactly is being obese doing to your health? Let’s take a look.
What is obesity?
Obviously, there is a difference between being overweight and being obese. There’s no real way of determining whether you’re obese as opposed to overweight, but if you’re extremely overweight it’s likely that you’re more on the obese side. One way of determining obesity is to use BMI (although this is fraught with problems as some people with a high percentage of muscle mass can have a high and technically unhealthy BMI). But generally, if your BMI is over 30, you’re classed as being obese, with BMIs of 40 and above being considered severely obese.
Another measure of obesity is your waist circumference, which is generally thought to be a better way of measuring. Men with a waist circumference of over 37in are more likely to suffer from obesity-related health problems.
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, this. Does being obese make us more likely to suffer from depression, or does suffering from depression make us more likely to become obese? Either way, there is a link between the two, and they both feed off each other. It makes sense – if you’re feeling depressed, you’re less likely to want to look after your body, and the work that goes into planning, prepping and eating healthily can feel like a monumental struggle. Similarly, if you’re obese and not happy with your body, it’s a steady downward spiral.
Of course, losing weight isn’t a guaranteed ticket to happiness and many people falsely think that losing weight will just automatically solve all of their problems. It won’t.
Type 2 diabetes is another thing that is closely linked to obesity, especially if you tend to carry most of your weight around your abdomen. People with a BMI higher than 30 are thought to be up to 80% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes – studies suggest that abdominal fat causes fat cells to release ‘pro-inflammatory’ chemicals, which can make the body less sensitive to the insulin it creates. This is known as insulin resistance, a hallmark of type 2 diabetes (h/t to Diabetes.co.uk for explaining it better than I ever could).
The good news is that losing weight can really help, with the NHS suggesting that even losing 5% of your body weight can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by up to 50%. And if you’re already diabetic, it is possible to reverse type 2 diabetes by losing weight – the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has called for greater awareness of this, as reversal of diabetes is rarely acknowledged by doctors and patients alike. But it is possible and can be achieved with a weight loss of around 15kg.
You’ll notice that it’s type 2 diabetes that can be reversed by weight loss, type 1 diabetes isn’t linked with weight or age and although you can manage symptoms of type 1 diabetes, it cannot be reversed in the way that type 2 diabetes can.
Being overweight places a lot of stress on your circulatory system. It can raise your cholesterol levels, increase your blood pressure, and as we’ve seen above, increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. All of these things are big risk factors for coronary heart disease – that’s when your coronary arteries get ‘clogged’ up, or gradually narrowed by a build-up of fatty materials within their walls.
If enough of this fatty material builds up, your arteries will become so narrow they can’t get enough oxygen-rich blood to your heart. The pain and discomfort this causes is called angina. If this fatty material (known as atheroma) breaks off, it can cause a blood clot, and if it blocks the coronary artery and cuts off the supply to your heart muscle, this is a heart attack.
It’s scary stuff. but there are several risk factors that can be changed. Smoking, being overweight and being inactive are the three big ones – so if you can work on changing these three things the risk of developing heart disease will go down.
Obesity is linked to a lower sperm count and lower-quality sperm, which has an impact on your fertility. Sperm found in obese men also has low mobility, meaning that they take longer to make their way through the reproductive system and up towards the egg. This may make it difficult for you (and your partner) to conceive.
Exactly why obesity affects sperm is unknown, but early findings from a new study show that there is an improvement in sperm quality when obese men lose weight.
Gallstones are small, rocklike masses that form in the gallbladder and cause great pain when they block the gallbladder’s ducts. The stones can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a pebble. Sometimes they go unnoticed and create no symptoms, other times they are small enough to be passed and in some cases, you need to have surgery to get rid of them (or to get rid of your gallbladder as a whole if you’re unlucky enough to have recurring bouts of gallstones).
Gallstones and their complications are more common if you’re obese, over 40 and have a family member who suffers from them.
This is a long and scary list, but the good news is that you can lower your risk of developing these things by losing weight. Losing even 5% of your body weight can have health benefits, and that’s an achievable target to start with. So if you’re worried about the effect being overweight is having on your health, focus on that first 5% and you’ll lower your risk of health complications massively.