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Obesity is an Epidemic for Your Entire Body

Being obese means more than having too much body fat. It does long-term damage to your body and puts your life in peril.

A pair of feet, stepping on a scaleObesity is a health issue that isn’t constrained to Iowa or even the United States. It’s a worldwide health epidemic that affects more than 650 million people in every single country. But the obesity epidemic hits Iowa harder than most.

According to The State of Obesity annual report, Iowa has the fourth highest obesity rate in the nation. More than 36 percent of adults in the state are obese — a number that’s tripled since 1990. That means one in every three Iowans over the age of 18 are not only at an unhealthy weight; they’re also at greater risk for many other serious health conditions.

What’s the definition of obesity?

Obesity is a term you hear a lot but it’s hard to know exactly what it means. You know when you or someone you know is overweight. But when does it cross the line into obesity?

It’s not as easy as stepping on the scale. Obesity is defined by your body mass index (BMI), which is a simple measurement based on your weight and height that’s used to classify the fat accumulation in your body. If your number’s 30 or more, you are obese.

If your BMI is over 40, or it’s 35 or more and you have an obesity-related condition, you’re considered morbidly obese. Morbid obesity is an even more serious condition that can cause issues with normal everyday activities, like getting up or walking, or even physical functions such as breathing.

What causes obesity?

There are a lot of factors that play into weight: genetics, metabolism, lifestyle choices, certain diseases and many socioeconomic factors. At the most basic level, obesity is caused by the long-term consumption of more calories than you expend. You eat more than you exercise.

What you eat makes a difference. Diets high in sugar, fat and refined foods lead to weight gain. Many of the convenient, low-cost options and packaged foods that Americans have come to rely on in their busy schedules fall into this category. Long term, that type of diet can make you obese.

Which health issues are linked to obesity?

There are a lot of them. The extra weight you carry and the fat in your body can lead to a number of other serious health problems that affect your heart, bones, joints, organs, blood, mind and more. The most common obesity-related health conditions are:

Type 2 Diabetes

Over time, obese people become resistant to insulin and can no longer regulate their blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes is the result of insulin resistance, leading to high blood sugar, which can damage your nerves and blood vessels without proper monitoring and regulation. An unhealthy diet with too much fat, too little fiber and too many carbs can lead to both obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Heart Disease

Excess weight forces your heart and blood vessels to work harder to carry oxygen throughout your body. The unhealthy diet and lack of exercise that cause obesity also lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries that can cause blockages. All these issues can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.


Carrying additional weight puts greater pressure on your bones and joints. That leads to wear and tear that damages the tissues that cover the ends of your bones. Stripped of this cushion, your bones are rubbing bone-on-bone, which leads to pain, swelling, inflammation, reduced motion and loss of normal shape in your joints. Because they carry the most weight, your hip and knee joints are most likely to fall to arthritis.

Sleep Apnea

Weight is the biggest risk factor for sleep apnea. Like with your joints, the excess weight adds pressure — this time on your upper chest while you lie down. It can be difficult to breathe and you may even stop breathing several times a night. Sleepless nights further reduce your quality of life, sap your energy and even disrupt the hormones that control appetite, making your weight issues harder to fix.

Urinary Incontinence

A large waistline puts stress on the pelvic floor muscles that help control your bladder and bowel. The added stress causes them to sag and weaken, leading to accidental leakage of urine. Urinary incontinence can be made worse if you also have type 2 diabetes and the resulting nerve damage affected the nerves that control the bladder.


Obesity affects your mental health as much as your physical health. Daily life as an obese person is not easy. You may have tried to lose weight again and again, only to fail at your goals or gain back the pounds you lost. These challenges can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, which can, in turn, make you less likely to make the lifestyle changes needed to reduce your weight.

Chronic Pain

When your joints and spine have to support more weight than they’re meant to, it can lead to chronic pain problems. Chronic pain is linked to other obesity-related health issues like arthritis and depression, so the pain and symptoms can be magnified. And when both your weight and level of pain make it hard for you to function, it’s that much harder to get active and exercise.


Unlike other diseases and health conditions, obesity doesn’t cause cancer. But medical evidence consistently shows that excess body fat is associated with an increased risk of cancer in the breasts, gallbladder, uterus, esophagus, liver, kidney, stomach, pancreas, bone marrow, colon, rectum, ovaries and thyroid. Obesity causes insulin resistance and affects your production of hormones that help limit your risks of many cancers.

With things like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes associated with obesity, it’s no surprise that being obese increases your risk of death. For every five points you move up in BMI, you’re 31 percent more likely to die prematurely.

How do I know if I’m obese?

Maybe you were at a normal weight once. Or maybe you’ve always been overweight. The pounds add up over time and what feels like “normal” for you can creep into dangerous territory.

Fortunately, it’s easy to determine if you’re obese. Calculate your body mass index with the National Institute of Health BMI calculator or look it up in a BMI table. If you carry most of your weight in your midsection, you’re at greater risk of obesity-related disease. Measure your waist circumference. Women’s waistlines should fall below 35 inches, men’s below 40 inches.

If you’re concerned by your measurements, talk to your primary care provider about getting your weight under control. Anything above a normal weight and BMI puts you at greater risk of many health issues and overweight often leads to obesity. With the help of your doctor, you can develop a plan focused on healthy eating and physical activity so you can get back to a healthy weight and stay there.

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