Understanding obesity: Exploring hidden health effects

Understanding obesity

Exploring hidden health effects

As the world gears up to observe World Obesity Day on 04 March, 2024, it’s crucial to explore the complexities of this widespread health condition that is affecting half of South Africans, as per a recent study by Witwatersrand University.

Obesity, often characterised by excessive body fat accumulation, goes beyond physical appearance. Lizeth Kruger, Dis-Chem Clinic Executive, emphasises that it is a complex multifaceted condition with implications that extend beyond what meets the eye. While its visible effects include higher risks of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, it also has hidden impacts on cognitive function, reproductive health, mental well-being, and even certain cancers.

Kruger elaborates on these hidden health implications below:

Cognitive function

Studies have shown that individuals with obesity are at a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia later in life. “Obesity not only burdens the body but also takes a toll on cognitive abilities, affecting memory, learning, and decision-making processes in midlife”, says Kruger. The underlying mechanisms involve chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and changes in brain structure and function.

Kruger recommends strategies like regular physical exercise to enhance brain blood flow, consuming a diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, engaging in mental stimulation activities like reading and puzzles, and managing cardiovascular risk factors through proper medical care to help maintain cognitive function.

Reproductive health

Obesity significantly affects reproductive health in both genders. In women, it leads to hormonal imbalances, disrupting ovulation and causing menstrual irregularities, which increases the risk of infertility. During pregnancy, obese women face increased complications like gestational diabetes, hypertension, miscarriage, and caesarean delivery, posing risks to both maternal and fetal well-being.

Additionally, it may lead to larger birth weights, birth defects, and long-term health issues for the baby. In men, obesity reduces sperm quality and causes erectile dysfunction, impairing fertility and increasing the risk of reproductive disorders.

Kruger advises managing conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS and hypertension, seeking fertility counselling as needed, and receiving prenatal care to address fertility issues and reduce pregnancy complications.

Cancer risks:

Recent findings from the Cancer Association of South Africa reveal that obesity stands out as a significant and preventable factor contributing to various cancers. These include breast and bowel cancers, which rank among the most prevalent types, as well as pancreatic, oesophageal, and gallbladder cancers—recognised as challenging cancers to treat. Other cancer types include womb and ovarian cancers, along with kidney, liver, upper stomach, and meningioma (a form of brain tumor) cancers. Furthermore, Obesity impacts cancer treatment outcomes, affecting chemotherapy effectiveness, surgical results, and overall prognosis.

Kruger stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and active lifestyle to reduce the risk of obesity-related cancers. A balanced diet is essential, aiming for two-thirds of the plate filled with non-starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, or legumes, and the rest with animal protein. Moderation in alcohol consumption and regular screenings and medical guidance for managing obesity-related conditions are also recommended.

While being overweight does not mean you will develop cancer, the longer and heavier the weight, the higher the risk. Kruger advises preventing further weight gain and striving for weight loss to decrease cancer risk. This comprehensive approach not only lowers the likelihood of obesity-related cancers but also improves treatment response and overall survival rates.

Mental well-being:

The psychological toll of obesity extends beyond body image concerns. It significantly impacts mental well-being, contributing to developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. “Obesity is not just a physical burden but an emotional one as well, with consequences such as social stigma, discrimination, and low self-esteem associated with obesity magnifying mental health challenges, resulting in poor mental well-being and weight management difficulties,” says Kruger.

To address this, Kruger recommends that both men and women seek support from mental health professionals, engage in therapy or counselling, build a strong support network of friends and family, and practice self-care activities such as mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Additionally, she suggests cultivating self-compassion, practicing stress-management techniques, and focusing on overall wellness to reduce the emotional toll of obesity.

“Let us not only raise awareness about the visible aspects of this condition but also strive to understand and mitigate its indirect health implications. By recognising and addressing the multifaceted nature of obesity, we can pave the way for a healthier and more inclusive future for all,” concludes Kruger.

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