Overweight and Obesity in Women: Health Risks and Consequences

Frank B. Hu, M.D., Ph.D.

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In This Article

Summary and Conclusions

The adverse effects of obesity on health are indisputable. Overweight and obesity are central to the metabolic syndrome and the single most important risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Obese women are particularly susceptible to diabetes, and diabetes in turn puts women at dramatically increased risk of CVD. Obesity substantially increases the risk of several major cancers, especially postmenopausal breast cancer and endometrial cancer. Overweight and obesity are associated with mortality from all causes, and the risk of death rises with increasing weight. The U.S. Surgeon General in 2001 issued a Call to Action, pointing out that "Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking" (http://www.niddk.nih.gov/welcome/releases/12-13-01.htm) in the United States. Approximately 300,000 U.S. deaths a year are associated with obesity and overweight (compared with >400,000 deaths a year associated with cigarette smoking).

Obesity is a complex problem resulting from a combination of genetic, behavioral, environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic influences. However, behavioral and environmental factors are primary determinants of obesity, and lifestyle modification has been shown to be extremely effective in preventing type 2 diabetes through moderate weight loss. Because most Americans do not engage in regular physical activity (especially women) or follow a healthy eating pattern,[1] the task of reversing the obesity trend is an enormous challenge, which calls for changes not only in diet and lifestyle at individual levels but also in policy, physical and social environment, and cultural norms.

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