What are the complications of obesity?

Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics
Obesity is linked with some of the most prevalent and costly medical problems seen in daily practice. Obesity alone is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, cancer, and early death. In combination with the metabolic syndrome, it further increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. In sum, obesity affects at least nine organ systems of the body.

Note that the psychosocial complications of obesity may be as significant as the physical health concerns. Obese people, particularly those with extreme obesity, may experience discrimination and other difficulties in the workplace or in personal relationships, leadingto poor self-esteem, social withdrawal, depression, and other mental health problems. In addition, obesity may lower the individual’s perception of general health, while comorbid disorders and their effect on physical function may lower morale.

Both psychosocial and other medical factors contribute to a decline in general health and quality of life. A continuum has been observed between mildly, moderately, and severely obese individuals, with quality of life worsening with increasing body weight and the number of acquired comorbid illnesses.
Obesity, with its associated unhealthy dietary habits and low level of physical activity, is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States and results in an estimated $117 billion in health care costs each year. Overweight people are more likely to have high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Additionally, the results of a large study supported by the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggest that excess body weight is strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of heart failure.

As people become overweight, their glucose tolerance declines, putting them at twice the risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a major cause of early death, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, blindness and amputation. Several types of cancer are associated with being overweight, including cancer of the uterus, gallbladder, kidney, breast and colon. Other conditions linked with obesity include sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, gout, gallbladder disease and infertility. Obesity-related conditions worsen as weight increases and often improve as the excess weight is lost.

Obesity is a major component of a group of metabolic risk factors known collectively as metabolic syndrome, including:
  • central obesity (too much fat tissue in and around the abdomen)
  • elevated fasting glucose equal to or greater than 100 mg/dL
  • high triglycerides (equal to or greater than 150 mg/dL) and low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL for men or less than 50 mg/dL for women), which are both associated with plaque accumulation in the arteries
  • high blood pressure (130/85 mm HG or higher)
  • insulin resistance or glucose intolerance
  • other proinflammatory and prothrombotic states
Health conditions that promote metabolic syndrome are overweight/obesity, physical inactivity and genetic factors. People who have this syndrome are at increased risk for developing coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease and type 2 diabetes.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.