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The #1 Reason for Obesity, According to Doctors

It's an epidemic. But there's a fairly simple solution.

Although COVID-19 is receding in the U.S., Americans are staring down a different epidemic that shows no sign of relenting: Obesity. More Americans than ever—about 42% of us—qualify as clinically obese. It's an urgent problem, considering that obesity significantly raises the risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia. But solutions are available, and they start with recognizing the primary reason for obesity. Here's what experts say. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What is Obesity?

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"To determine if somebody is obese, we look at the body mass index," a measure of body fat based on height and weight, says Mir Ali, MD, bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "Normal range for BMI is 18 to 25." A BMI over 25 is considered overweight, while "if somebody has a BMI over 30, that is considered obese, and they are at risk for developing health problems due to their weight," says Ali. 

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What is the #1 Cause of Obesity?

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People tend to become overweight because they regularly consume more calories than they expend. "A lot has to do with the quality of the diet and the various habits that people can get into, such as snacking regularly," says JoAnn Manson, MD, DrPH, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of preventive medicine at Brigham & Women's Hospital. 

But not all calories are created equal. Some foods that are highly processed—including simple carbs, sweets, packaged snack foods, and fast food—don't fill you up, and they encourage your body to eat more and keep eating.

For example: A diet that's heavy in processed foods like chips, cookies, and TV dinners will increase a person's blood sugar, which can cause insulin to spike and crash, leading to frequent feelings of hunger. "Foods like that do not tend to lead to satiety, so you tend to overeat," says Manson. 

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What Diet Prevents Obesity?

mediterranean diet
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Experts say there's no magic bullet (or diet) for weight loss. The key is to consume fewer calories. "The truth is, almost any diet will work [for weight loss] if it helps you take in fewer calories," says Harvard Medical School. 

So doctors advise eating high-quality calories, like those provided by the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, and olive oil, while being low in red meat, processed meats, and processed foods. For snacks, instead of sweets or potato chips, try nuts, fruit, or non-starchy vegetables with a yogurt-based dip.

Those healthy staples can be delicious and satisfying, filling you up without the need to deprive yourself or resort to old-timey calorie counting. "The quality of the diet is much more important than the quantity of calories," says Manson. "A high-quality diet will almost automatically lead to better calorie control—you're going to be eating foods with higher satiety."

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What to Do If You Think You May be a Person With Obesity

Overweight woman discussing test results with doctor in hospital.

"The goal of obesity treatment is to reach and stay at a healthy weight," says the Mayo Clinic. "This improves your overall health and lowers your risk of developing complications related to obesity. You may need to work with a team of health professionals — including a dietitian, behavioral counselor or an obesity specialist — to help you understand and make changes in your eating and activity habits. The initial treatment goal is usually a modest weight loss — 5% to 10% of your total weight. That means that if you weigh 200 pounds (91 kg) and have obesity by BMI standards, you would need to lose only about 10 to 20 pounds (4.5 to 9 kg) for your health to begin to improve. However, the more weight you lose, the greater the benefits." And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael
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