Central Maine Medical Center
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What is Obesity?

Obesity is a medical condition that results when a person has excessive body fat -- to the extent that it adversely affects his or health. One measure of determining obesity is simply by weight: you may be considered obese if you are at least 20 percent heavier than what is considered "normal" for your height and age. A more common way of determining obesity is by evaluating a person's body mass index (BMI), a formula that uses height and weight to help ascertain the amount of body fat present. (See related link to BMI.) The term "morbid obesity" refers to people who are severely overweight and at greatest health risk. The measures for this condition may vary, but generally speaking, include: being 100 pounds overweight; or 50 to 100 percent over a "normal" weight; or having a BMI of 40 or more; or, being unable to function normally due to excess weight.

What Causes Obesity?

Obesity is caused when a person consistently eats more calories than he or she burns off through movement and exercise.

What causes a person to overeat?

There are many reasons why a person may overeat.

Genetics. Research about the role of genetics and obesity is not definitive, but there are indicators that some people may be born with a genetic predisposition to obesity. Their metabolism and hormonal make-up may cause them to burn calories more slowly. However, most can still lose weight successfully and keep it off.

Environment. How a person views eating can be seriously impacted by his or her environment, whether home, school or the workplace. For example, if a child grows up in a home where overeating is connected to celebrations, or is used as a reward, or where healthy eating is not modeled, and/or exercise is not encouraged, then the likelihood of obesity is much greater. Similarly, if a school or work culture also encourages unhealthy eating and does not include exercise as part of their make-up, then obesity is also more likely.

Physical Activity. It is easy to blame the culture for the fact that people simply do not exercise as much today as they did years ago.

We drive more, walk less, and do fewer physical chores, thanks to technology. Over time, moving less and eating the same amounts of food will result in weight gain. We may have to create time for exercise, if it is not an integral part of our home, school or work life.

Psychological or Emotional Factors. Some people overeat for psychological or emotional reasons. They learn to associate food with comfort; it is something they believe soothes them. Depression and anxiety may cause overeating. Many obese people have experienced trauma in their lives; that is why therapy can be a useful tool in helping someone understand what compels them to overeat.

Illness and Medications. Some illnesses and some medications can cause weight gain. This is something that can be discussed with your healthcare provider; often the weight gain is temporary, and it also can be addressed.

Gender and Age. Women tend to have a slower metabolic rate than men; their rate slows even more after menopause. And for both genders, metabolism slows as we age.

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