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Obesity: Now a leading killer


Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photos courtesy of WHO and World Obesity Federation

A new enemy is emerging in the 21st century — our appetite. Gluttony has become a way of life instead of an exception. Today, obesity is more of a life and death issue rather than just simply looking “bad.” In fact, it is fast becoming one of the world’s leading reasons why people die.

“Obesity affects people of all ages and all social groups. It is already threatening the future well-being and longevity of many youths, as well as the economic prosperity of countries,” deplored the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).

Around the world, more than one billion adults are overweight – and at least 300 million of them are clinically obese. Overweight is defined by a body mass index (BMI) greater than 25, while obesity relates to a BMI of 30 or above. The BMI is calculated by dividing body weight (in kilograms) by height (in meters) squared. For example, a person who is 1.7 meters tall and weighs 65 kilograms would have a BMI of 22.5.

There is a misconception that obesity is common only in industrialized countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. But obesity is fast spreading across the globe. There are now more fat people in the world than hungry people, reports the International Obesity Taskforce (IOT).

In extreme cases, people who are overweight since childhood could die as much as five to 10 years early. “The developing world in particular is going to bear the enormous brunt of this weight gain,” deplored Dr. Neville Rigby, IOT policy director. 

Obesity often affects only adults. But in recent years, children are not spared from this health burden. In fact, there is such a thing as childhood obesity. A 2004 IOTF study showed 155 million children between the ages of five and 17 worldwide who are overweight, with 30 to 45 million of them regarded as obese. In the Philippines, 1.8 percent of boys and 0.8 percent of girls between the ages of six and ten are overweight.

“We should fight off the common mistakes of Filipinos that overweight children are ‘cute.’ It is not!” urged Dr. Ramon F. Abarquez, Jr. when he was still alive. “Healthy kids are not overweight or underweight. We should teach them proper eating habits and healthy lifestyle choices while they were young.”


“We’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic,” decries Dr. John Foreyt, one of the world-renowned authorities on obesity. “We have to start in the young and develop healthy lifestyle habits, particularly in our dietary preferences, to prevent becoming obese and developing all sorts of cardiovascular problems.”

A couple of years back, a nutrition expert said the Philippines has the third “fattest population” in Asia – after Malaysia and Singapore. Currently, about 500,000 Filipinos are suffering from obesity. What is alarming is that some of these obese are still teenagers.

Although not a medical emergency, Dr. Ian Caterson urged government health officials to do something about it now — before obesity becomes pandemic. “Obesity has a significant impact on both the health of a nation and its health bill,” said the Australian professor of nutrition during the Third Scientific Meeting on Obesity in Malaysia. “Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, gallstones, fatty liver, back problems and osteoarthritis. In addition, being obese increases your risk of cancer and infertility.”

According to the Philippine Obesity Control Surgery Team, obese people are at a much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes (which is a result of a high blood sugar level). Also, obesity can triple the risk of heart disease. One-third of all deaths globally — about 17 million — are blamed on heart disease, stroke, and related cardiovascular problems.

Lack of sleep used to be seen as a disorder brought about by stress and environmental factors, but recent studies have shown that sleeping disorders like sleep apnea can also be caused by obesity. Sleep deprivation can lead one person to have a low energy level which deters them from doing physical activities during the day and ultimately gain more weight. This cycle traps an obese person even more.

There are many reasons why become obese. Among the most common ones are diabetes, thyroid problems, poor diet, insufficient exercise, and heredity. People with a predisposition to gain weight often aggravate their condition by smoking, drinking alcohol, and leading a sedentary lifestyle. 

Health experts suggest that if you are obese, one possible solution is to recognize that you have a disease and avoid habits that aggravate it. Watching television, for instance, is one of the strongest predictors of obesity. 

Dr. Ricardo Fernando, a member of the Philippine Society of Hypertension, traced the current problem of obesity in the country to Filipinos’ passion for food, as illustrated by the popularity of ‘eat-all-you-can diners.’ “Everywhere you go, restaurants are offering such promos, probably taking advantage of the Filipinos’ excessive appetite,” he observed.

If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. The tricky part of the equation is that some people metabolize food differently from others. Why this happens is complex and not entirely clear to researchers, who continue to be surprised by each new finding. For instance, one recent study concluded that heavy people actually burn calories faster than underweight people because their metabolism speeds up as they put on pounds and slows if they try to take them off.

“For obese people, the average-sized meal really isn’t filling,” says The Medical Advisor: The Complete Guide to Alternative and Conventional Treatments. “Not only do these people have more fat cells sending out signals for food, but their faster metabolism burns more calories as well.”

Despite such obstacles, an obese person should make every effort to lose weight. If left unchecked, obesity places that person at much greater risk for developing those extremely serious, often life-threatening conditions. 

“Be particularly concerned if your body tends to store fat around your waist (most common in men),” advises The Medical Advisor. “Unlike fat around the thighs, which is more common in women and is more likely to serve as an energy reservoir, abdominal deposits deliver fatty acids directly into the bloodstream for immediate short-term energy; doctors remain uncertain why this can prove to be detrimental to your health.”

Beating obesity in the Philippines should be a family affair, according to Dr. Abarquez. By “family affair,” he explains that the whole family must be involved, from parents to the youngest child. The dietary instructions have to be reinforced at home. Health instructions in school will be meaningless if the child goes home with pork chop and pata tim for dinner.

Diet is just one thing. Exercise is another. Experts claim that aerobic exercise is essential to weight loss – even more important than diet. Still, many people don’t know when to exercise to reap maximum benefits. The answer: light exercise after eating.

“A moderate workout after you eat uses just-consumed calories instead of storing them,” explains Dr. Bryant Stamford, director of the Health Promotion Center at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He points out that when you avoid storing calories, you also avoid turning them into fat. He recommends an easy walk or other mild exercise after eating.

However, exercise and strict diet regimes have little or no effect in reducing weight – particularly for morbidly obese people. What would do the trick with these kinds of people is laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding. It is a procedure wherein a gastric band is placed on the stomach pouch to restrict food intake.

The dietary habits are changed after the laparoscopic surgery because it gives the person the feeling of being full even after a light meal. Just a word of warning, though: Consult with a doctor first before undergoing any medical procedure to determine if you are a viable candidate for the operation.

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