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The Complex Puzzle of Obesity 

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Obesity and being overweight are multifaceted conditions stemming from an imbalance between the calories we consume and the energy we burn. It is a bit like a seesaw between the food we eat and the energy we use up, and when things get out of whack, it can lead to overweight and obesity.

The World Health Organization defines overweight and obesity as the accumulation of excessive or abnormal fat that may harm our health. Carrying extra weight can bring on serious health problems, including diabetes, heart conditions, sleep apnea and certain cancers. Furthermore, people with obesity often face weight-based discrimination, exacerbating self-esteem issues and potentially leading to anxiety and depression, thereby diminishing overall quality of life.

Unfortunately, there is still a tendency to believe that individuals who are overweight or obese lack the strength to change their unhealthy lifestyle habits. But in reality, obesity is a tricky puzzle with many pieces and things like our genes, how our body works, the world around us, our families, and how we act have an influence on it.

Can we completely dismiss personal accountability as a factor in being obese or overweight? Well, not entirely. We make choices every day, and those choices matter, but biological, environmental, and social factors can either support or hinder our ability to act in our own best interests.

To honestly address the obesity issue, we need to dig into what’s causing it in the first place. Let’s take a look at a few important things to keep in mind.

The Food We Eat

Thanks to global connections, the Industrial Revolution, and new food processing technologies, our eating habits are transformed towards Western dietary patterns and not-so-healthy food that is super easy to find. We’re chowing down on too many ultra-processed foods, red meats, refined grains, unhealthy fats, sugary products, and insufficient amounts of nutritious foods like veggies, fruits, seeds and nuts. Due to its calorie-dense and nutrient-poor nature, Westernised dietary habits can lead to weight gain and adverse metabolic effects. Furthermore, consuming ultra-processed foods can lead to overeating, as they’re designed to be highly palatable and easy to overconsume. Additionally, they can disrupt natural appetite regulation mechanisms, making it harder for us to control our food intake.

Changing our diets would be the most effective way to tackle the obesity problem. While we often understand which foods are less healthy and what we should eat to promote weight loss, putting it into practice can be pretty challenging. This is because our daily routines, habits, and even the environment around us can make it hard to make healthier choices consistently. It’s not just a matter of knowing but also finding practical ways to incorporate these changes into our lives. That’s why, even though changing our diets is a super effective way to address obesity, it’s a journey that requires support, motivation, and sometimes even some trial and error.

Physical Activity

A sedentary lifestyle and lack of physical activity are important factors that explain why some people become overweight. Physical activity encompasses various forms of movement, including walking, cycling and engaging in different types of exercise, such as cardio and resistance training. 

Nowadays, many of us have jobs that involve sitting at a desk all day, and we usually rely on cars instead of walking or cycling. When it comes to winding down, we surf the internet or turn the TV on instead of engaging in regular exercise. 

Being physically active not only burns calories but also boosts our metabolism, reduces the risk of chronic diseases and stress and helps us stay at a healthy weight.

It is essential to acknowledge that attempting to shed excess weight solely through exercise without adjusting what you eat is like swimming with the clothes on- it is challenging. The real magic happens when regular exercise is combined with a balanced diet. That is when the best results are achieved. 


Getting enough good-quality sleep is vital for staying healthy. When we don’t get proper rest at night, it can affect our hormones and how our body stores fat. Lack of sleep can lead to lower insulin sensitivity, meaning our blood sugar levels rise. Plus, it can mess up our hunger signals. The hormone that says ‘stop eating,’ leptin, takes a dive, while the one that says ‘eat more,’ ghrelin, shoots up. This imbalance can make us overeat and potentially gain weight.

But that’s not all. Sleep impacts our emotions, increases stress levels and makes us feel exhausted. In response, we might feel hungrier and crave comfort foods. Additionally, if we’re tired, our motivation to exercise can take a nosedive, leading to a more sedentary lifestyle.


The connection between stress and weight gain is indeed substantial. While not everyone reacts to stress the same way (some may even lose weight), chronic stress can lead to putting on extra pounds for many. The connection between stress and weight is a two-way street – elevated stress levels can be both a cause and a consequence of obesity.

Stress affects our mental well-being, directly impacts the body physically and can lead to making less healthy lifestyle choices.

When stressed, our body releases cortisol, a hormone that can lead to increased appetite and fat storage, particularly around the abdomen. Additionally, stress may lead to emotional eating, where individuals seek comfort in food, often choosing high-calorie, sugary, or fatty options. 


Obesity often runs in families, hinting at a genetic connection. There are different types of genetic obesity: one is caused by a single gene mutation (monogenic obesity), and another involves obesity along with developmental delays, organ-specific abnormalities and dysmorphic features (syndromic obesity). These forms usually start early in life and are severe but uncommon. The most prevalent type of genetic obesity is polygenic obesity. Isn’t this terminology so confusing!

Polygenic obesity arises from many variants in several genes that contribute to weight gain when combined with environmental factors. The FTO gene is a well-known player in obesity, and variations in this gene have an impact on metabolism, how fat is distributed, and appetite regulation, thereby increasing the risk of becoming overweight or obese. But the good news is that even if you have these genetic variations, it doesn’t mean you’re destined to be a certain size. It means you should be more conscious of your diet and physical activity levels. 

Common Diseases & Conditions

That Can Lead to Weight Gain or Obesity

Hypothyroidism: this is when the thyroid gland does not produce enough thyroid hormone, which can slow down metabolism and lead to weight gain.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): PCOS is a hormonal disorder associated with higher levels of male hormones and low sensitivity to insulin. PCOS is common among females of reproductive age and can lead to weight gain, especially around the abdomen.

Cushing’s Syndrome: this condition happens when the body is exposed to high levels of cortisol for a long time, often due to issues with adrenal glands or certain medications. It can lead to weight gain, particularly around the midsection.

Type 2 Diabetes: this is when cells in the body become less responsive to insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. This condition, known as Insulin Resistance, can lead to increased appetite and more efficient storage of calories as fat, potentially leading to weight gain.

Psychological & Emotional Issues: anxiety, depression, trauma and a history of abuse can lead to changes in behaviour, eating habits and activity levels, which may contribute to weight gain. 

Hormonal Imbalances: hormones play a crucial role in how our bodies are shaped and how our weight is regulated. Disorders in hormones like growth hormone, leptin, and ghrelin can affect appetite and metabolism.

Gut Microbiota Imbalances: emerging research suggests that imbalances in microorganisms in our digestive tract may have an impact on our weight.

Certain Medications: some medications, like specific antidepressants, antipsychotics, corticosteroids, and anti-epileptic drugs, can lead to weight gain. 

Remember, if you are concerned about your weight or obesity-related health issues, it is essential to consult with your healthcare provider for evaluation and guidance. They can help you understand any underlying medical conditions and work with you to develop a plan for managing your weight.


Environmental Factors

Environmental factors play a significant role in determining our body size and overall health. Cultural norms, societal influences, the availability of nutritious foods, and opportunities for physical activity all come into play.

People are more likely to make less healthy choices in areas where it’s more convenient to grab a high-calorie, processed meal rather than to find fresh and nutritious options. This is particularly true in areas where grocery stores with fresh produce are scarce, leading to a heavy reliance on convenience stores and fast food.

Safe and inviting places to walk, play, or exercise are essential for maintaining an active lifestyle. When communities lack parks, safe pathways, or recreational facilities, it becomes much more challenging for individuals to incorporate regular physical activity into their routines.

Additionally, the powerful influence of marketing and advertising, especially targeting children, must be considered. Companies invest significant resources in making unhealthy foods look enticing and enjoyable, which can significantly sway our preferences and choices. This can be incredibly challenging for kids who may not fully grasp the long-term effects of their dietary decisions. Furthermore, children often look to their parents and other family members as role models, and if parents have unhealthy eating habits or lead sedentary lifestyles, children are more likely to adopt similar behaviours.

Socioeconomic Factors

Socioeconomic factors strongly influence obesity rates. People with lower income levels or fewer educational opportunities often face greater challenges accessing and affording healthy food options. Limited educational opportunities may lead to a lack of health literacy, making it more challenging for individuals to make informed dietary and lifestyle choices.

Throw in higher stress levels, limited access to safe spaces for physical activity and limited healthcare resources, including preventative services and nutritional education, and you’ve got a recipe for a higher chance of dealing with obesity in communities that are facing economic challenges. 

Addressing these disparities is crucial if we want to make a dent in the obesity issue on a larger scale.

Bottom Line

It’s essential to recognise that each individual’s journey with obesity is unique, and multiple factors may interact to contribute to their specific situation. Identifying what leads to weight gain and working on it to combat obesity is like solving a big puzzle; as puzzle pieces are distinct and fit together in their own way, individuals facing obesity have their own unique pieces that make up their story.

That’s why personalised treatment plans are super important. When we deal with obesity with a personalised approach, the odds of success increase.

But remember, the weight loss journey is not easy; it takes time and is for life.