Health professionals constantly urge people to stop eating high-calorie foods and be as physically active as possible. Unfortunately, however, a large number of people consume more calories than they burn. End result? The body stores this extra energy as fat.

While a few extra kilos might not seem such a big problem for some it can lead to serious health problems if left unattended. The bit of extra weight turns into overweight and gradually can lead to obesity.

Even though other major health risks, like smoking, show a decrease in prevalence, overweight and obesity are not. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) “obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese. Once associated with high-income countries, obesity is now also prevalent in low- and middle-income countries.

Normal, overweight or obese: the definition is simple

The way to determine whether you are at normal weight, overweight or obese is by calculating your BMI – Body Mass Index. BMI is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in meters (kg/m2).

Based on BMI, the classification which applies to both sexes and all ages of adults is as follows:

  • NORMAL WEIGHT: a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9
  • OVERWEIGHT: a BMI greater than or equal to 25
  • OBESE: a BMI greater than or equal to 30

Still, it is important to remember that even though BMI is a very good measuring “tool” of overweight and obesity, it does not directly measure your body fat. A bodybuilder for example, may have a large BMI but not a lot of body fat. There are other tests available which determine a person’s body fat.

Weight problemsGlobal facts are quite alarming

Once considered a developed country problem, overweight and obesity are now on the rise in developing countries, particularly in urban settings. Approximately 3.4 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44% of the diabetes, 23% of the ischemic heart disease and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer cases are attributable to overweight and obesity.

According to a major new analysis, deducted from 1980 to 2013 in 188 countries in all 21 regions of the world, there has been a startling increase worldwide in rates of obesity and overweight in both adults (28% increase) and children (up by 47%) in the past 33 years.

More specifically, the number of overweight and obese people increased from 857 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion in 2013. In 2012, more than 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese. Source: Science Daily 

Health consequences can be serious

The most common health problems people with an increased BMI might face include:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • stroke
  • diabetesObesity in children
  • kidney disease
  • musculoskeletal disorders, especially osteoarthritis
  • some cancers, like  colon, rectum, or prostate cancer in men and women breast (after menopause), gall bladder, uterus, or cervix cancer in women
  • breathing problems, including sleep apnea
  • fatty liver disease
  • gall bladder disease and gall-stones
  • pregnancy problems, such as gestational diabetes (high blood sugar during pregnancy), high blood pressure, and increased risk for a cesarean
  • in children, obesity increases the risk of fractures, breathing difficulties, hypertension and diabetes

The risk for these conditions, for an adult and/or a child,  increases with the increase in BMI. Thus, losing even 5 to 10 percent of the extra weight can delay or prevent some of these diseases.

Junk food… plays with our brain

As already mentioned, the fundamental cause of overweight and obesity is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. This mostly happens due to the increase numbers of “couchpotatoes” that shiver at the possibility of any form of physical activity, the changing models of transportation and of course, the increased intake of high-calorie processed foods.

One way to conquer the problem is by becoming more active. Small steps towards a more active “you” can significantly increase the calories you burn., like taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

Still, the most difficult part is controlling what you eat. Let’s be honest and admit that eating healthily can be a bit tricky since unhealthy treats are often a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y delicious. So, what can we do?Obese man

Admittedly, we were not born liking french fries while despising cauliflower or broccoli. Somehow during growing up our body decided that fries are far more appealing (they are, aren’t they?) than any salad. How did that happen, though?

Some people are indeed more prone to diet missteps, while others are more strong-willed and resistant. Researchers, however, believe that it is not our missing willpower that drives us towards unhealthy foods but a more complicating brain activity.

A study led by Professor Margaret Morris, Head of Pharmacology from the School of Medical Sciences, UNSW Australia, concluded that when rats are given a diet of junk food not only do they become fat, but also have a reduce appetite for novel foods. The researchers think that a junk diet causes lasting changes in the reward circuit parts of the rats’ brain, for example, the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for decision-making.

As the brain’s reward circuitry is similar in all mammals, these results can be an indicator of people’s inability to limit their intake of certain kinds of foods. (Source: Science daily)

And if you are wondering why you cannot say no to a bag of crisps, even if you have just eaten a 3-course meal, ask your brain again. According to scientists the high ratio of fats and carbohydrates present on crisps sends a pleasing message to the brain which makes it difficult to decide to say no.

There is hope, sunshine. Let’s re-program that brain!

Even though, however, junk food re-programs our brain towards unhealthy eating, there is still hope. Yes, what junk food involuntarily does to our brain we can undo.

To find out whether the brain can be re-trained to support healthy food choices, Roberts and colleagues at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University and at Massachusetts General Hospital, studied the reward system in thirteen overweight and obese men and women.

eat healthEight of whom were participants in a new weight loss program designed by Tufts University researchers and five who were in a control group and were not enrolled in the program. They used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans at the beginning and end of a six-month period and ultimately discovered changes in areas of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction.

After six months, this area had increased sensitivity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, indicating an increased reward and enjoyment of healthier food cues. The area also showed decreased sensitivity to the unhealthy higher-calorie foods.

“Although other studies have shown that surgical procedures like gastric bypass surgery can decrease how much people enjoy food generally, this is not very satisfactory because it takes away food enjoyment generally rather than making healthier foods more appealing,” said first author and co-corresponding author Thilo Deckersbach, Ph.D., a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. (Source: Science Daily)

So, before going for an invasive surgical procedure think again. Weight control is a lifelong effort. It is possible to enjoy food and be healthy at the same time. Extreme dieting is not necessary. Remove high-calorie foods from your house, stock up in fruits and vegetables, throw away fizzy drinks. Starting now with such small steps your health can start improving, as overweight and obesity are largely preventable. Just put your brain on it!

Useful sites for information and support:

Adult BMI calculator

BMI Percentile Calculator for Child and Teen

Obesity Action Coalition

DailyStrength

Big Matters (UK)

Weight Concern (UK)

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Lab scientist, sharp dresser and cooking guru Maria is one half of the original alwaysladies.com founding team. She brings her opinions with earnestness and a smile, even when there are razor blades inside.

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