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Obesity (OpenStax Psychology 2e)

When someone weighs more than what is generally accepted as healthy for a given height, they are considered overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an adult with a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight. An adult with a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2012). People who are so overweight that they are at risk for death are classified as morbidly obese. Morbid obesity is defined as having a BMI over 40. Note that although BMI has been used as a healthy weight indicator by the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC, and other groups, its value as an assessment tool has been questioned. The BMI is most useful for studying populations, which is the work of these organizations. It is less useful in assessing an individual since height and weight measurements fail to account for important factors like fitness level. An athlete, for example, may have a high BMI because the tool doesn’t distinguish between the body’s percentage of fat and muscle in a person’s weight.

Being extremely overweight or obese is a risk factor for several negative health consequences. These include, but are not limited to, an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, liver disease, sleep apnea, colon cancer, breast cancer, infertility, and arthritis. Given that it is estimated that in the United States around one-third of the adult population is obese and that nearly two-thirds of adults and one in six children qualify as overweight (CDC, 2012), there is substantial interest in trying to understand how to combat this important public health concern.

What causes someone to be overweight or obese? You have already read that both genes and environment are important factors for determining body weight, and if more calories are consumed than expended, excess energy is stored as fat. However, socioeconomic status and the physical environment must also be considered as contributing factors (CDC, 2012). For example, an individual who lives in an impoverished neighborhood that is overrun with crime may never feel comfortable walking or biking to work or to the local market. This might limit the amount of physical activity in which he engages and result in an increased body weight. Similarly, some people may not be able to afford healthy food options from their market, or these options may be unavailable (especially in urban areas or poorer neighborhoods); therefore, some people rely primarily on available, inexpensive, high fat, and high calorie fast food as their primary source of nutrition.

Generally, overweight and obese individuals are encouraged to try to reduce their weights through a combination of both diet and exercise. While some people are very successful with these approaches, many struggle to lose excess weight. In cases in which a person has had no success with repeated attempts to reduce weight or is at risk for death because of obesity, bariatric surgery may be recommended. Bariatric surgery is a type of surgery specifically aimed at weight reduction, and it involves modifying the gastrointestinal system to reduce the amount of food that can be eaten and/or limiting how much of the digested food can be absorbed (Mayo Clinic, 2013). A recent meta-analysis suggests that bariatric surgery is more effective than non-surgical treatment for obesity in the two-years immediately following the procedure, but to date, no long-term studies yet exist (Gloy et al., 2013).

An illustration depicts a gastric band wrapped around the top portion of a stomach. A bulging area directly above the gastric band is labeled “Small stomach pouch.” The area directly below the stomach is labeled “Duodenum.” Down-facing arrows indicate the direction in which digested food travels from the esophagus at the top, down through the stomach, and into the duodenum.
Gastric banding surgery creates a small pouch of stomach, reducing the size of the stomach that can be used for digestion. Source: OpenStax Psychology 2e


Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Houston, Texas. Accessed for free at https://openstax.org/details/books/psychology-2e


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