Obesity and Public Health
By Sam MacArthur

Obesity is a complex health disorder that impacts the body in many detrimental health ways. Many of the consequences of obesity and its resulting symptoms are chronic and tend to be cumulative, worsening over time without proper intervention or medical attention.

Obesity public health problems shouldn’t be confused with someone’s preference to lose 5 or 10 pounds for cosmetic or vanity reasons. When obesity and public health intersect, the results are far-reaching across cultures and age groups.

why is obesity a public health issue

What is Obesity, and is Obesity a Public Health Problem?

The word obese is derived from French/Latin from the verb ‘obedere’ – which means to overeat.

From a layman’s perspective, obesity is a condition where an individual has so much excess body fat that there is a marked increase in their health problems and even a cause for early death. At the very least, an obese person will find that their weight will prevent them from doing things they used to enjoy doing.

Obesity, scientifically, is defined by one’s BMI – a calculation entitled Body Mass Index. The Body Mass Index is a  mathematical calculation that delineates how appropriate your weight is for your height. Mathematically, a Body Mass Index (BMI) is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters.

Body Mass Indices are categorized as follows –

  • If a Body Mass Index is less than 18.5, the individual is considered underweight.
  • If a Body Mass Index is 18.5 to 24.9, the individual is considered normal weight.
  • If a Body Mass Index is 25 to 29.9, the individual is considered overweight.
  • If a Body Mass Index is 30 to 39.9 or higher, the individual is considered obese.
  • If a Body Mass Index is 40+, the individual is considered morbidly obese.

Note – Some medical professionals and epidemiologists calculate BMI using a Waist-hip ratio. It the ratio is greater than 1.0 for men and greater than 0.85 for women, the individual is considered obese. This test seeks to separate ‘apple-shaped bodies’ from ‘pear-shaped bodies’ but is not considered as reliable as a BMI calculation.

The medical community began to be concerned with the average BMIs of Americans (as they steadily climbed into the overweight category (and beyond)) over the past seven to eight decades. However, the obesity public health issue has become reached new heights dangers as the average weight of Americans has continued to climb into the obese and morbidly obese categories at the turn of the new century.

At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, obesity as a public health issue has reached a fever pitch, as most weight loss initiatives – implemented by the government or private sector – have been, partially, or only temporarily successful.

Let’s Move

As first lady, Michele Obama launched a national movement entitled ‘Let’s Move,’ with a mission to launch the next generation of healthier kids. Let’s Move became a national initiative to help children born to grow up healthy, healthier than their parents – without weight issues and the associated health problems. The purpose of Let’s Move was to keep kids healthy enough to pursue any dream or goal they may have.  

Let’s Move provided access based on common sense. It offered information regarding –

  • Healthy food choices in schools and homes.
  • Affordable food choices that are healthy.
  • How to encourage children to be more physically active on a regular basis.

Let’s Move holds the distinction of being the first presidential task force regarding childhood obesity. This task force was responsible for reviewing programs and policies that dealt with childhood activity and nutrition – across the board – with a mission to create national policies and federal funding to improve resources aimed at reducing childhood obesity across the country.

The Let’s Move Conceptual Pillars include –

  • The creation of programs to help all children have a healthy start.
  • The creation of programs that empower parents and caregivers of overweight or obese children.
  • The creation of programs that provide or manage the provision of healthy food in school systems.
  • The creation of programs that improve access to healthy and affordable foods to all.
  • The creation of programs that increase physical activity for all children and adults.

Everyone will need to partake in the effort to reduce childhood obesity, including –

  • Parents & caregivers who may be overweight themselves.
  • Elected officials at all government levels.
  • Private and public schools.
  • Health care professionals and the medical community with outreach programs.
  • Faith-based and community-based organizations.
  • Private sector companies supporting community efforts.

Why is Obesity a Problem?

Obesity as a public issue is a recognized medical problem because of its direct link to the increase in many health problems. These increased health risks impact a number of bodily functions, organs, and systems like –

  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes, Pre-Diabetes
  • Fatty Liver Disease
  • Infertility
  • Metabolic Syndrome
  • Gall Bladder Issues
  • Cancer, among a host of other often preventable health disorders.

Causes of Obesity

Many causes contribute to significant weight gain.

  • Some people struggle with weight issues due to poor eating and diet choices.
  • Some people struggle with weight issues due to sedentary lifestyles or choosing to never exercise.
  • Some people struggle with weight issues due to genetics as their family histories include relatives with significant health problems caused by weight issues

The really good news is that even when an obese/overweight individual loses only a modest amount of weight, health improvements come quickly.

Why is Obesity a Public Health Issue? 

Obesity is a public health issue because of the detrimental health issues it creates, plus the sheer number of Americans (and most countries across the globe) who have reached obese weight levels to near-record, if not dangerous, levels.

Obesity & Adults

According to the CDC – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 42 million adults in the country during the years 2017-18 were considered obese

Obesity & Children

Obesity during childhood not only causes health problems during childhood years, but it also sets up a lifetime of health problems when these children become adults. Studies have more than suggested that overweight/obese children are significantly more likely to become overweight/obese adults and suffer from related health problems. BMI measurements for children are a bit more complicated as the child’s height must be reflected in where they fall as a percentile within their height/weight age group.

Obesity in childhood is a complex issue but is best managed by reducing the obesogenic environment (either in their home or in society in general) a child grows up within. An obesogenic environment is an environment that promotes obesity.

Statistics on Obesity

The obesity statistics in America are staggering. Whether one is discussing the annual cost of obesity, reciting frightening obesity statistics in U.S., or warning the public regarding the dangerous statistics on childhood obesity, the obesity health costs and use of medical resources is now out-of-control and in need of a national intervention.

Obesity in the U.S. Statistics

According to CDC obesity statistics –

U.S. Obesity Statistics by Age

  • Adults over 60 had an obesity incidence of about 42% of the population.
  • Adults between 40 – 59 had an obesity incidence of about 45% of the population.
  • Adults between 20 – 39 had an obesity incidence of about 40% of the population.

U.S. Obesity Statistics by Socioeconomics

Obesity statistics with regard to education level or income differ by one’s race or ethnicity, and also by one’s sex. Obesity health care costs reflect one’s age, education and  

Statistics about obesity with regard to education are as follows –

  • Women and men who had complete college (at some level) had less incidence of obesity than their less-educated counterparts.
  • Obesity statistics in America, with regard to men and their respective income levels, reveal that the incidence of obesity was most prevalent for men who earned what is considered a salary that fell in a defined middle-income range.
  • Obesity in the U.S. statistics for women, with respect to income levels, reveals that the incidence of obesity was lowest for those women who were categorized as having the highest income among all groups. These statistics about obesity and women confirm that there was little difference in the prevalence of obesity in non-Hispanic black women despite their income levels.

When one considers the severity of the CDC obesity statistics, the reality of the statistics on childhood obesity, the true obesity health care costs, one must be also consider how much is obesity costing America – in terms of resources, lives, and finances.

Health Problems and Obesity

What are the health problems associated with obesity?

There is a large variety of diseases caused by weight gain that lead to tremendous risks of being overweight. The medical problems caused by obesity will depend on one’s age, other health problems, current state of health, medical and family history, plus a  number of environmental issues, like dysfunctional families, questionable advertising, or modern-day stressors.

Obesity can cause health problems even when the health risks due to obesity begin in childhood. In addition to the many medical health risks with being overweight, those who are obese often face the side effects of obesity like difficult, emotional lives with little joy or peace. Let’s take a look at some of the health risks from being overweight, discussed below.

Heart Disease

One of the most significant health issues that is considered an obesity-related disease is that of heart disease. Heart disease manifests through hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol/triglycerides. Heart disease can, and often does, result in a stroke.

Heart disease creates several obesity health risk factors in addition to a stroke. Other factors include angina, abnormal heart rhythms, or even cardiac arrest. Even just 10% of one’s body weight can improve heart disease and the health implications of being overweight.  – like high cholesterol or blood pressure.


Stroke is another health problem associated with obesity. A stroke happens when the brain’s blood supply is abruptly cut off by a blood vessel that bursts in the neck or brain. A stroke can lead to brain damage, with high blood pressure noted as a leading cause.

Metabolic syndrome

The condition known as metabolic syndrome is actually a set of conditions that, when combined, increases someone’s risk of heart disease and diabetes, among other potentially deadly conditions.  The health risks with being overweight include these side effects of obesity –

  • High blood pressure.
  • High blood glucose/triglyceride levels.
  • Low HDL (the good) blood cholesterol.
  • An abundance of waist fat.

Type 2 Diabetes

Adult-onset diabetes, Type 2 Diabetes, is another of the health risks of being overweight or obese. Weight loss – through exercise and proper nutrition/lifestyle choices immediately reduces the risk of developing diabetes as an obesity-related disease.

Diabetes causes high blood glucose levels which can lead to serious health risks from being overweight –

  • Stroke.
  • Heart Disease.
  • Eye Issues.
  • Nerve Damage.
  • Kidney Disease, among others.


There are many types of cancers and diseases caused by weight gain. The risks of being overweight can cause breast, colon, kidney, ovary, pancreas, gall bladder, and esophageal cancer, among others.

Sleep Apnea

Another of the common risks of being overweight is a condition known as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is directly linked to being overweight or obese. Sleep apnea causes a sleeper to stop breathing while sleeping, which leads to a general malaise during the day and increases the chances of a heart attack or a stroke.  

Losing weight is a great way to improve or eliminate sleep apnea.

Public Health Measures to Combat Obesity

There are no simple ways to combat obesity in America if the past six or seven decades is any indication. Controlling obesity remains a complex problem, and stopping obesity in America will require a multi-faceted, multi-level approach that includes everyone from the policymakers in the federal government to local business leaders, school officials, parents, and even an individual’s commitment.

The solutions to stopping obesity are often focused on the importance of stopping childhood obesity by introducing healthy lifestyles – early, as a preventative measure, rather than reactive when faced with a national epidemic.

Ways to Combat Obesity – State and Local Programs

Local and state governments offer information and resources regarding public health stopping obesity. Combatting child obesity generally begins with educating students; it, therefore, begins with stopping obesity in schools. The CDC recommendations for stopping obesity include educating students regarding BMI, healthy weight maintenance, nutrition, and the ways to combat childhood obesity.

Community outreach programs should support the efforts of stopping obesity in schools by providing educational resources about lifestyle choices that lead to healthy weight management. These recommendations for stopping obesity include understanding the following healthy lifestyle concepts and techniques –

  • Early education should include an understanding of what a healthy weight is and how to assess one’s weight. This would include teaching the concept of BMI as a comparison tool.
  • Understand how to balance and maintain healthy body weight and how to use free tools on the Internet to manage the process.
  • Focus on feeding your body the nutrition it needs to function optimally. Listen to your body’s wisdom. It will tell you when you are hungry and when you are full. Healthy eating habits are a fundamental part of maintaining a healthy weight throughout life.
  • Check out online recipe websites for healthy recipes or consider looking into one of those trendy companies that provide ready-made-healthy-organic-delivered meals – for those pressed for time.
  • Be smart and invest in a pedometer or fitness band and pay attention to how movement you have each day. Understand how you can increase your daily movement by taking the stairs or walking instead of riding. Grab a buddy to support your efforts and to keep you accountable in meeting your weight loss goals.

Parental Tips for Childhood Obesity: Parents should recognize the early signs of overeating before a weight issue takes over a child’s life. Learn about the ways a family can exercise together to help develop patterns of healthy behavior early in a child’s life.  

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