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Overweight and Obesity: The Causes, Dangers, and Solutions

Average read time: 9 minutes

Illustration of father and son cooking

With more than half of the world’s population being overweight, obesity is a global health issue, and South Africa is one of the countries with the highest obesity occurrences. Roughly 31% of men and 68% of women in the country are obese, and it’s estimated that the numbers will increase by 47.7% in women and 23.3% in men by 2025.

Being overweight or obese are health concerns that need to be addressed. Addressing it is made difficult by certain beliefs that influence South Africans’ perspectives on what it means to be overweight or obese, and how it affects their health. With certain dietary and lifestyle adjustments, gaining weight or becoming obese can be avoided, and it’s important to spread awareness around this escalating health issue.

What is obesity?

Obesity is defined as being excessively overweight and having a high count of body fat, especially around your waist area. This is caused when excess calories are stored as fat in the body. When high numbers of calories are consumed, particularly those found in foods with a high fat and sugar count, and aren’t used by the body through physical activity, this extra energy is stored as fat.

Typically, an adult male who is relatively active requires 2 500 calories a day, and an adult female 2 000. This may sound like a lot, but these numbers are reached quickly when consuming certain types of food. Besides consuming more calories than needed, modern-day humans aren’t as active as they used to be and might not burn the estimated number of calories per day, so, everything that’s consumed and not used in the form of energy, gets stored as fat.

One way to determine whether you’re overweight or obese is by calculating your body mass index (BMI). This can be calculated by dividing your weight (in kilograms) by your height (in metres) squared. According to the BMI index, a healthy weight range is between 18.5 and 24.9, overweight people score 25 to 29.9, and obese people score 30 or higher. People with a score of 25 and up need to start paying attention to better managing their weight.

Most common causes

There are several causes for people being overweight or obese. These can be divided into different categories.

Diet

When it comes to dietary causes for being overweight or obese, the most common culprits are:

  • Eating large amounts of unhealthy or fast food – These food items are high in fat and sugar, often providing us with more calories than we can use.
  • Drinking too much alcohol – Many people don’t realise, but alcohol contains a lot of calories and can lead to you putting on weight fast.
  • Eating out often – The foods we enjoy in restaurants are often more indulgent than the ones we make at home, and so it may be higher in fat and sugar.
  • Drinking too many sugary drinks – Sugary drinks include soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices, which are high in sugar and excess calories.
  • Comfort eating and eating out of boredom – Some people find solace in food when their mood is low, and others eat out of boredom. The danger with this is that you consume more than your body needs, as you’re not eating to satisfy hunger but rather your emotional needs. People also make poor snacking choices, mostly consisting of baked goods, sweets, and chips.

Due to our busy lifestyles, following a healthy diet has become difficult. High-calorie, convenient foods are often our go-to and we don’t always realise what effect these have on our weight, health and body. Making Healthier Choices Using Front-of-pack Nutrition Labelling is a good place to start improving your food choices.

Lack of physical activity

Nowadays, many people avoid physical activity. Instead of walking, we drive. Instead of taking stairs, we use elevators and escalators. Instead of being active, we watch television or play computer games. And, on top of this, most people spend a minimum of eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer.

Our sedentary lifestyles are a common cause for more and more people being overweight or obese. Although we’re less active, we still consume the same number of calories (or more) that an active body requires. So, the excess calories are stored as fat.

Genes

In some cases, genetics can cause a person to become overweight or obese as it can affect how our bodies process food into energy, and how much of it gets stored as fat. But mainly, gaining weight has to do with unhealthy eating habits and a lack of exercise.

Medical reasons

Underlying medical conditions can contribute to weight gain, but if diagnosed and treated correctly these conditions can be managed and the patients should be able to maintain a healthy weight. Medical conditions that are known for causing weight gain include:

  • Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) is when your thyroid doesn’t produce sufficient hormones.
  • Cushing’s syndrome is a rare illness in which your body produces too many steroids

Certain modern medications can also cause some people to gain weight.

Cultural perceptions

In Africa, cultural perceptions and ideals also play a crucial role in the high occurrence of obesity. In some cultures, it is believed that healthy people should not be skinny as it symbolises poverty and ill health. The belief that being overweight is considered good, healthy, and a sign of prosperity is accepted in South Africa and other countries such as Morocco and the USA. In these countries, obesity is often a symbol of happiness. Because someone with money can buy food and eat as much as possible.

Also in the African context, mothers are encouraged to eat more after childbirth, for their wellbeing and that of their infant, which often leads to excessive weight gain.

The dangers of being overweight

Did you know that 4.5 million people die every year due to being overweight or obese? Many people fail to realise that it can lead to several dangerous health problems and illnesses. Julia Goedecke, a senior specialist for the Medical Research Council of South Africa, says, "People don’t understand it; they see it as more of an aesthetic problem than a health problem”.

Being overweight can cause the following health problems:

  • Heart disease (as the extra weight puts strain on your heart)
  • High cholesterol levels (which increase your chances of heart attack and stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Certain cancers
  • Gallstones
  • Sleep apnoea
  • High blood pressure
  • Arthritis
  • Psychological problems (obese people may feel very insecure about their weight)

Ways to fight obesity

In the end, good nutrition and regular physical activity are two simple but effective lifestyle changes that can help set you on a road towards better health, and allow you to manage your weight more effectively.

Eat better

The fastest way to regain control of your weight is to change your diet. Besides the obvious recommendations of staying away from fast foods, sweets, and foods with high sugar and fat content, there are additional changes you can make to your diet to get rid of excess kilograms.

  • Evaluate your lifestyle and align your consumption
    One way to make sure that you’re not consuming more than your body needs is to understand your requirement of macronutrients, and knowing which foods are good sources of these nutrients. Next, it’s important that you align your lifestyle to your macronutrient intake.
  • Increase your fibre intake
    Fibre makes you feel fuller for longer, so it can help you resist the urge to snack continuously. The best sources of dietary fibre are fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as legumes and pulses. Here’s a Spicy Black Eye Beans with Spinach recipe to get you started. Broccoli is another great source of fibre, so why not try this Chicken, Broccoli and Rice Stew?
  • Eat at least five portions of vegetables and fruit daily
    You can experiment with different kinds of recipes to make sure you get all five portions of fruits and vegetables in every day. Here are some delicious fruit recipes: Very Berry Loaded Breakfast Jars and Curried Peach Noodle Salad. And some tasty ways to eat your vegetables: Spicy Lentil Stuffed Butternut and Couscous Salad with Roasted Vegetables.
  • Use healthier cooking methods such as steaming, boiling, and grilling
    Try cooking your food with less fats and oils by opting to steam, boil or grill. This doesn’t mean that your dishes should be boring. Have a look at these mouth-watering recipes: Lentil & Boiled Egg Bredie and Grilled Steak with Chimichurri Sauce.
  • Eat smaller portions
    We’ve become accustomed to large portions, which means that we often eat more than our bodies need. Pay attention to your portion sizes and don’t keep on eating once you’re already full.
  • Limit your salt intake because salt makes your body retain water
    When we eat too much salt, our bodies retain extra sodium which increases the amount of fluid we hold. Cutting down your salt intake can help you manage your weight as it reduces the amount of excess fluid retained in your body.
  • Drink between six to eight glasses of water a day
    Up your water intake and drink at least six to eight glasses of water per day. Doing so helps your body get rid of waste through urination, perspiration, and bowel movements.
  • Get active
    To use the calories you’re consuming, get active! It’s recommended adults should partake in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. This includes activities such as cycling or fast walking. The 150 minutes doesn’t have to be done at once. It can be broken down into smaller periods which may make it more manageable. You could exercise for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for example.
  • Get help if necessary
    People who are overweight or obese often suffer from emotional issues about their self-image. In some instances, it’s necessary to reach out to a professional to help you work through these issues. Talking to a professional about your eating habits can help you understand them better. This may enable you to take positive steps to overcome your unhealthy eating habits.
    To start managing your weight more effectively, look at your life holistically to recognise where you need to make changes. Start with small changes to your diet and exercise regimen so that you’re able to sustain these and make them part of your lifestyle.

FAQs

What is obesity?

Obesity is defined as being excessively overweight and having a high count of body fat, especially around your waist area. When high amounts of calories are consumed, particularly those found in foods with a high fat and sugar count, and aren’t used by the body through physical activity, this extra energy is stored as fat.

How can I tell if I’m overweight or obese?

One way to determine whether you’re overweight or obese is by calculating your body mass index (BMI). This can be calculated by dividing your weight (in kilograms) by your height (in metres) squared. According to the BMI index, a healthy weight range is between 18.5 and 24.9, overweight people score 25 to 29.9, and obese people score 30 or higher

Is being obese dangerous?

Yes, being overweight or obese can lead to several dangerous health problems and illnesses.

What causes obesity?

There are several common causes for people being overweight or obese. These can be divided into the following categories: diet, physical activity, genetics, medical reasons, and cultural perceptions (especially within the African context).

How can I fight obesity?

Good nutrition and regular physical activity can help set you on a road towards better health and allow you to manage your weight more effectively.

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