Given that studies show obesity can cut life expectancy by up to 7 years, it's the state of our health, not the size of our jeans that should encourage us to reduce our weight. As National Obesity Awareness Week begins, we find out what's really at stake

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For most of us the messages we read and hear about being ‘fat’ are all about the way we look. We're taught to lose weight because we can’t fit into our favourite pair of skinny jeans and because our thigh gaps don’t mimic those of the Victoria's Secret Angels (a ridiculous phenomenon that no one should pay attention to ) - and god forbid we might at some point have to slip into a bikini . The reality of the situation however, is more serious.

Obesity related diseases are hailed as one of the leading preventable causes of death worldwide - in 2014 alone a staggering one million people died within Europe for this reason. With such shocking statistics, have we got our priorities around weight and body image all wrong? After our vanity is all said and done, what are the real costs of being overweight (besides our figures) that are taking place beneath the surface?

“It’s first important to understand what we mean by ‘fat’,” says GP Dr. Caroline Robertson. “When someone is classed as overweight (an adult with BMI over 25-29.9) this indicates that they have a weight that is greater than what is considered ‘healthy’. When someone is classed as obese (an adult with a BMI over 30), this indicates a chronic condition which is defined by an excess amount of body fat. If a person falls into either of these two brackets then a whole range of serious health implications are possible and often imminent.”

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Largely, these health consequences can be broken down into two categories. Firstly, there are those that can result from the fat mass just simply being on your body - ranging from obstructive sleep apnea, and arthritis to social stigmatisation and psychological problems.

Secondly, there are also a whole host of chronic conditions that may arise due to the increased number of fat cells in the body. These include: insulin resistance (a pre-diabetes condition),  type 2 diabetes , high blood pressure, high cholesterol, strokes, heart attacks, congestive heart failure and arthritis of the hips, knees and lower back. “There is even evidence to suggest that obesity can lead to cancer,” says Dr. Robertson. “In particular, obesity is linked to colon cancer in men and women, rectum and prostate in men, and cancer of the gall bladder and uterus in women.”

However, the point here is not to scaremonger, because while the consequences may be severe, they are not totally beyond recall. As it is well known, being overweight is caused by a combination of excessive food, lack of physical exercise and genetic susceptibility. And, while you can’t affect your genes you certainly can do something about your environment and activity levels.

“The important thing to remember is that you can reverse quite a lot of the health risks,” says Dr. Robertson. “But obesity can’t be solved with a short-term fix, it’s a life-long process and you have to involve diet in quality and quantity as well as putting in enough exercise. The changes don’t have to be radical either - for example it isn’t necessary to achieve your ideal weight to derive health benefits from obesity management. Instead, the goal of treatment should be to reach and hold a healthier weight. Statistics show that success is much higher for those who aim to achieve a weight-loss goal of roughly 10-15% in contrary to those who adopt crash diets and extreme measures.”

So, specifically what can be done to help reverse the problems? Here are Dr. Robertson’s top tips:

  • The first thing to do is stop any further weight gain and establish a realistic weight-loss goal. Then, you have to get both your diet and exercise regime in place.
  • Eat more nutritious food with ‘low energy density’, such as vegetables, fruits and lean meats - while alsoavoiding foods high in saturated fatsand simple sugars such as cakes, fast food and chocolate and crisps.
  • Take anactive interest in food labels- try to educate yourself in understanding what nutrition is included in the dishes you’re eating and how much of a certain food group you’re consuming in a day.
  • Complete 20-30 mins of moderate exercise between five and seven days a week. Don’t get too stuck on what you do - walk, cycle, jog or swim - they all use different muscle groups and will be equally beneficial. And remember, you’re never too old to turn things around and make a change.

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