An overview written for general readers of the history, prevention, treatment, causes, and consequences of obesity.

What makes obesity a disease instead of just a matter of overeating? What are the genetic and environmental factors behind it? What new breakthroughs are being developing to combat it? This concise, information-rich volume looks at these and other important questions, clearing away misconceptions about this devastating condition.

Obesity explains what scientists now know about the causes and consequences of being overweight, including the latest on the links between obesity and heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, asthma, and sleep difficulties. The book pays specific attention to the problem among obese young people, who more and more are being diagnosed with chronic illnesses that used to only be seen in adults. It also reports on promising efforts to battle obesity, from medical treatments to community awareness programs.


The obesity epidemic is an inescapable truth that confronts us on a daily basis via the latest statistics about the number of people in the United States who are categorized as obese, advertisements for diet products, or our own observations of the people around us. There is a great deal of cause for alarm because although it is known that being obese is generally bad for health, we are at the dawn of the understanding of how seriously and deeply obesity can impact so many aspects of health and disease processes. For example, we now know, due to rigorous scientific inquiry, that obesity increases not only the risk of death, heart disease, and diabetes but also the risk of developing certain cancers.

The number of obese children in the United States is on the rise. Pediatricians are diagnosing high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes in children, and these are illnesses that traditionally do not present until adulthood. The epidemic of obesity in children and young adults not only threatens their quality of life but also threatens to shorten their life span. Thus, effective ways to prevent and treat obesity in childhood and adolescence are urgently needed.

Obesity has been documented by scientists over the ages and depicted and glorified in artwork spanning thousands of years. Although in some cultures corpulence was celebrated as a sign of prosperity, even ancient scientists such as Hippocrates recognized the detrimental consequences of obesity to health.

Obesity impacts all sectors of society, but it disproportionately affects some minority groups, especially African Americans and the growing Hispanic population in the United States. In addition, obesity is often an outward sign of poverty because the food that is affordable and available to low-income people in their living environment is often energy dense and nutrient poor. Exacerbating this, low-income people often live in unsafe neighborhoods, and this discourages physical activity.

The causes of obesity have been debated extensively, but it seems to come down to the fact that in present-day society, people are moving less and eating more than they did 50 years ago. In short, the United States has undergone a nutrition transition. More daily tasks have been mechanized (e.g., motorized transportation), and we have moved from an agrarian economy to one that is more service oriented and urban centered. This shift not only demands less of our bodies in terms of physical activity but also results in a shift in eating patterns away from eating traditional local foods and foods prepared in the home and toward consumption of mass-produced, high-calorie processed foods. In addition, the food that is available is delivered in larger quantities and has a high calorie value. Globally, countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China, which have experienced rapid economic expansion, are in the midst of their own nutrition transition.

The influence of advertising and media on how we think and the purchases we make has been studied in relation to the obesity epidemic, largely focusing on children and young adults. Although research in this area continues to grow along with new interactive media technologies, it has been hypothesized that media (e.g., watching television, playing computer games) displaces physical activity and that food advertisements and marketing to children contribute to overweight and obesity in this population.

The epidemic of obesity and its concomitant complications threaten to overwhelm the health care system in the United States and foreign countries that continue to try to stem the tide of HIV and other infectious diseases. The cost of managing the epidemic, which many point out is preventable, is to the detriment of treating other illnesses and draws money needed for other sectors of society such as education. Indeed, the consequences of overweight and obesity, as experienced on a population level, are far reaching and ultimately can threaten the economic viability of a country. Disabilities and premature death due to obesity rob society of its most productive members, and the lost income in addition to the cost of treating the complications of obesity prolong the poverty cycle to the next generation.

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