Overweight and obesity have tripled in less than 30 years. In Latin America, 1 in 4 people is overweight or obese, increasing the trend. (6)
Obesity increases the risk of diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer. (4)
Understanding the causes of overweight and obesity is key to eradicating it. This article describes all the possible causes of overweight and obesity and determines which are the most important.
What is meant by overweight and obesity?
To talk about the causes of overweight and obesity, it is necessary first to define these terms. The World Health Organization defines overweight and obesity as an abnormal or excessive accumulation of fat that can be harmful to health. (4)
The increasing number of new cases has classified it as an epidemic. This fact reflects the need to know its triggering causes to work on modifiable factors.
The easiest way to define overweight and obesity is to use the body mass index. For adults, these values are:
- overweight: BMI equal to or greater than 25.
- obesity: BMI similar to or greater than 30.
In addition, to determine if a person is overweight or obese, the waist measurement must be taken into account. Women with a waist greater than 88 cm and men with a core greater than 102 cm are associated with increased cardiometabolic disease risk. (9)
Causes of overweight and obesity
Being overweight and obese is a multifactorial disease. That is, no single cause can be established. According to Dr. Mónica Katz, the significant known factors of overweight and obesity are the so-called “ big two ”: consuming foods with high energy density and physical inactivity.
But as we said, obesity is a multicausal disease; therefore, naming only the “big two” would oversimplify the subject. The causes of overweight and obesity are:
- Energy imbalance between calories consumed and expended
The primary cause of overweight and obesity is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and expended. The concept is simple; if a person eats more calories than he spends, they will accumulate in the form of fat.
- Sleep debt
A decrease in the quality and hours of sleep reduces leptin levels (the hormone that gives the signal of satiety) and increases ghrelin levels (the appetite-stimulating hormone). In this way, the desire for foods high in carbohydrates is increased.
Studies confirm that short-term sleep and poor sleep quality are associated with a higher incidence of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, respiratory diseases, and obesity in children and adults. (1)
- Constant air conditioning
The constant air conditioning of the rooms avoids us having to waste calories. Human thermoneutrality is 21 degrees, but we currently live in environments where the heating is around 25 to
30 degrees. This reduces energy expenditure for maintaining body temperature.
- Endocrine Disruptors
Endocrine disruptors are artificial chemicals that pollute the environment. Their danger lies in the fact that they can
alter cellular signals involved in body weight, lipid homeostasis, and even fat distribution (2).
The most common are pesticides and some plastics. Numerous studies have associated exposure to endocrine disruptors with obesity, classifying them as obesogens. (3)
- Microbiota intestinal
The gut microbiota (the population of microbes that inhabit our intestines) is different in obese individuals than lean individuals. How the body processes calories can vary dramatically from person to person.
Antibiotic treatments at an early age can alter the composition of the intestinal microbiota, which can lead to a reduction in protective species against obesity. Consuming probiotics can help in some cases.
Many drugs have a negative collateral result in weight gain. Among them are psychotropic drugs, antidiabetics, antihypertensives, and antivirals.
There is sufficient evidence that dieting (extremely restrictive diets with pleasure deviation) is the
best predictor of weight gain. In other words, people who go on extreme diets gain more weight compared to people who never dieted.
This is due to adaptive psychobiological mechanisms that are triggered by extreme diets. As there is a deficit in the energy intake from food, the body activates a compensatory mechanism to avoid wasting energy (metabolic expenditure drops to 40%) and remains in savings mode. This leads us to a result opposite to the one sought: the famous rebound effect.
- Genetic susceptibility
The gene can cause overweight and obesity but is not destiny. Scientific evidence has shown that a facilitating environment is necessary to gain weight, that is, an “obesogenic” environment, full of food stimuli, sedentary work, or excessive workload without the possibility of training, and stress, among others.
How to combat the causes of overweight and obesity?
As we can see, obesity is a complex disease determined by many causes, and many are modifiable. The marketing strategies we see today, the low cost of unhealthy products, and misinformation influence the rise in obesity worldwide.
Therefore, we must treat obesity from a multidisciplinary perspective that includes nutrition strategies, physical activity, and mental and physical health.
As for food, it is about achieving a sustainable healthy eating pattern over time through changing habits. This means eating a healthy diet most of
One way to combat the causes of overweight and obesity is to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables, water consumption, whole grains instead of refined ones, legumes, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy.
All this without neglecting the pleasure of eating, finding a healthy balance. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being (WHO); therefore, depriving ourselves of what we like and going to extremes
cannot be considered healthy either.
Prisoners and obesity in Uruguay
According to the second national survey of risk factors for non-communicable diseases, in 2013 in Uruguay, the prevalence of overweight and
obesity in people between 25 and 64 years old was 64.9%.
Uruguay is one of the countries where the percentage of overweight and obesity grew faster in the last ten years. The figures reach up to 65% of adults and almost 40% of children. (7)
In other words, almost 2 out of 3 adults are overweight/obese. The increasing number of new cases has led to classifying it as an epidemic in Uruguay, reflecting the need to know its causes.
According to the Ministry of Public Health, the increase in overweight and obesity in Uruguay is attributed to cultural causes. The population does not perceive it as a health problem. (7)
Our country presents the highest figures in the continent for childhood overweight. Three out of ten adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 are overweight and obese. In addition, two out of three Uruguayans are at risk due to overweight, obesity, or hypertension.
Overweight and obesity is a worldwide problem. Determining what its causes are is essential to combat this disease. The most important reasons are diet and level of physical activity. Making dietary changes and exercising is the key to reducing overweight and obesity in both adults and children.