Are the Health Risks of Obesity Overrated?

By Barbara Pierce

“I’ve been obese all my life and I don’t have any medical problems!” said a 65-year-old friend.

“Fat is not unhealthy!” claim many websites.

Even from the McGill University website, a Canadian Ivy league school: “Obesity is not synonymous with ill health.”

We’ve noticed more and more — online and in newspapers — the health risks of obesity are being downplayed.

Why is this, we wondered? We know health news changes. Health trends change. What’s good for you in one generation carries a severe health risk in another generation. Is this true of being obese?

Perhaps it’s the magnitude of the problem. According to the American Heart Association, almost one-third of U.S. adults and 17% of U.S. children are overweight.

We used to hear that obesity is an alarmingly global public health issue. Several countries have seen a triple rise of obesity in the last few decades, due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and the consumption of more high-calorie processed food.

So is this no longer an alarming issue?

“If so many people are doing it, let’s make it an OK thing,” seems to be the current thinking.

We wondered:

Could the health risks of obesity be overstated? Could the media be right and it’s no longer a big deal?

Keneth Hall

“No! They’re wrong. There is a direct relationship between obesity and medical complications,” said Keneth Hall, medical director of the Weight Loss Center at Rome Health, Rome.

“They’re mutually exclusive,” he added. “You can’t have one without the other. There’s a distinct and direct relationship.”

“An obese woman came into my office the other day,” he continued.  “She stated: ‘I may be overweight but I’m perfectly healthy!’ No, she’s not perfectly healthy; she just hasn’t developed any medical complications yet.”

“A person can be overweight and not yet have developed medical complications,” he said. “Here’s the way it goes: You become overweight, then you become obese, then you become obese with a full constellation of medical problems.”

Those problems include high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, fatty liver —often obese people have a combination of these.

Another thing we’ve noticed lately: a lot of ads for weight loss programs say “It’s not your fault that you’re fat.”

Is it the fault of the individual we asked Hall?

“Yes and no,” he replied. “There are three pathways to obesity: genetics, behavior and environment.”

Some people have a higher risk because of their genes; obesity runs in the family. If you have those genes, you could eat exactly the same thing as someone who is not genetically predisposed and you will gain weight faster than the person who is not genetically predisposed, he explained.

“That doesn’t mean you have to accept it; but you do have to work harder to keep the weight off,” he said.

“Behavior means the way an individual contributes to whether he is overweight or not,” he added. “If you’re a couch potato, maybe have a job where you sit all day, and you’re not active, then you’re more likely to be overweight.”

Environmental causes are multifaceted, he said. This refers to your whole family environment. Persons in higher socio-economic status with more education are able to afford to eat a healthier diet and they teach their children a healthier lifestyle. As compared to lower income, lesser educated families, who may eat a lot of fast food and aren’t physically active, don’t go to the gym.

Also, our community at large contributes to the obesity epidemic, with 10 fast food places on every corner, an easy access to unhealthy food.

If you have a problem keeping your weight within normal limits, you need to be active and get help — see a doctor or see a gastric bypass specialist.

Hall is a gastric bypass specialist.

“Severe obesity is a chronic condition,” he said. “It’s difficult to treat through diet and exercise alone. Surgical intervention has been shown to be more effective than non-surgical interventions for sustained weight loss.”

In gastric bypass surgery, the physician makes changes to your stomach and small intestine to change the way they absorb and digest food. It aids weigh loss by restricting the amount of food that your stomach holds.

For this surgery to be successful, patients must be dedicated to a life style change and lifetime of follow-up appointments, added Hall.

“Yes, there is a direct correlation between obesity and the extent of physical complications,” he said. “The more obese you are, the more likely you are to develop multiple medical problems.”