At one point in nearly everyone's life there comes a moment when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror or shop window and think, "Whoa, I gotta lose some weight."
It's not like it's a big surprise. Weight-gain is not a head cold or a boil that magically appears overnight. Like muscle, it's something that increases gradually with time and with your complete awareness and collaboration. Except, of course, that building muscle is hard and takes lots of exercise, whereas getting fat is pretty easy and requires no exercise at all.
Body Mass Index, a combination of weight and height, is commonly used to determine when a person is overweight. An adult with a BMI of 25.0 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and obese if the adult BMI is greater than 30. Despite the fact that Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C, says that Americans spend around $50 billion every year trying to lose weight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, 64% of the U.S. population aged 20 and older is overweight and obese.*
But it's not necessarily just because we are a nation of doughnut-eating, chip-crunching, cola-sipping, hamburger-chewing junk food junkies. To be sure, one of our favorite verbs is "to supersize," and more and more businesses are being forced to offer products that fit our collectively expanding girth. But there are a range of physiological as well as psychological and technical reasons that make us fat.
What is curious about getting fat is that the human body is one of the most efficient energy-burning machines in the universe. We are able to ingest a wide range of proteins, carbohydrates and fats and convert them into muscle, blood and energy with remarkably little waste. The irony, of course, is that for years, mankind's primary concern was with getting enough to eat — and in some places that is still a very real problem — but today our biggest worries are about eating too much.
The food we eat is supposed to serve a purpose whether it is a protein that regenerates lean tissue, a carbohydrate that gives energy or a fat that protects an organ; but when there is a leftover amount of food that the body hasn't used, it gets turned into extra fat. This fat gets stored into fat cells, which cluster together to form adipose tissue or fat tissue. Everyone has fat around their organs for protection — for instance, surrounding the liver, the bowels and around the heart. While women have more of this tissue in their lower body (until menopause), men have it around their waistline.
Everyone needs some amount of fat to survive, but when the fat cells become too excessive, the body starts to place the extra fat in places like liver cells, muscle cells and heart cells, which doctors believe may be causing health problems.
"It's very easy to gain weight. Any kind of energy ingested (food or drink) and not used, is generally stored as fat. What we eat is fuel, and it's made out of fat, protein and carbohydrates," says Dr. Jeanine Albu, an endocrinologist at the Obesity Research Center at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. "We burn the fuel we need for energy, but everything that is not burned gets turned into triglycerides — basically fat."
Unfortunately, there are very real dangers to gaining too much weight. The CDC says every year almost 400,000 Americans die due to obesity from poor nutrition or lack of exercise. Excessive weight gain interferes with metabolic processes, increases lipids in the blood and cholesterol and increases risk for heart disease and diabetes. Not to mention the fact that obesity can aggravate mechanical problems in the arms and legs, arthritis and increase chances of sleep apnea.
Many health issues are also being attributed to increased fat gain around the stomach area, and some nutritional experts now believe that waist circumference may be an actual indicator of future health problems. "Fatty tissue stored around the stomach and abdomen carry a greater risk than fat located in the lower body around the butt and thighs," says nutritionist Anne Collins.
And although people would feel better if they didn't have all that extra weight, given the choice to stop the behaviors that lead to it in the first place, many wouldn't stop. The reason is because they don't realize it.
So what is really causing the problem that lies upon our waists? If you want to learn how we get fat, go right ahead and click on the slide show. It might help you lose weight.
*Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that 60% of the population aged 20 years and over in the U.S. is obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 64% of the U.S. population 20 years and older is overweight and obese.