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Why body fat is a health risk

Lesley Dobson / 07 January 2022

We read all the time that being overweight is a major health risk – but how does being very overweight affect our bodies, and why it is so dangerous?

Tape measure pinched by a peg signifying fat and obesity
Carrying too much extra weight could have serious consequences for your health.

Knowing how being overweight or obese links to serious health risks is important in helping to understand why reducing your weight is so vital to your health.

Being seriously overweight or obese (BMI of over 30) puts considerable strain on your body. Your knee and hip joints are more prone to osteoarthritis as a result of supporting and moving the extra load around. You may find yourself short of breath when making anything but the slightest physical exertion.

Excess weight is a factor in triggering type 2 (or non-insulin dependent) diabetes that normally comes on after the age of 40 because the body stops producing sufficient insulin, the hormone which regulates blood glucose levels or, more often, develops resistance to it.

Coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes are also more common in people who are obese.

Find out how to estimate a healthy weight that's right for you

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Obesity and high blood pressure

High blood pressure (over 120/80) can increase your risk of health problems. And the higher your blood pressure, the greater the risk to your health. High blood pressure can cause heart attacks and heart failure. High blood pressure is also one of the chief causes of stroke, kidney disease, and it can also be a cause of dementia.

If you have high blood pressure it means that the force at which your blood travels through your arteries is greater than it should be. The healthy level for blood pressure is below 120/80. If your blood pressure is from 120/80 to 140/90 or above, see your doctor for advice on how to bring your blood pressure down.

Obesity causes high blood pressure because the body has more fat tissue. This means the body needs a greater supply of oxygen and nutrients, and so needs more blood vessels, and more blood to pump through them. This puts more pressure on the heart and on the walls of the arteries, which results in high blood pressure.

Obesity, cholesterol and coronary heart disease

Cholesterol can be bad for your health. The unhealthy type of cholesterol is known as LDL (short for low-density lipoproteins). When you have too much LDL in your blood stream it can result in fatty deposits attaching to the walls of your arteries. These are known as atheroma (or plaques), and they cause a condition called atherosclerosis.

(HDL, or high-density lipoprotein is better for our health as it carries cholesterol from the cells, back to your liver. Here it passes out of our bodies as waste.)

Atherosclerosis causes narrowing and hardening of your arteries, and this can reduce the amount of space your blood has to flow through. If this happens, it means that your heart, brain and other organs won’t receive enough vital oxygen-carrying blood. The pain this causes is known as angina.

In the worst cases, when your arteries are completely blocked, this will probably cause severe health problems, including strokes and heart attacks. These conditions can cause serious, life-changing health problems, and can kill you.

Being overweight or obese puts you at risk of developing atherosclerosis. Other risk factors include having an unhealthy diet that contains too many high-fat foods, overeating, and not getting enough – or any – exercise. All these factors also increase your risk of being overweight or obese.

The link between weight and cancer

Being overweight or obese can really increase your risk of developing cancer. In fact, more than one in 20 cancers diagnosed in the UK may be linked to excess weight.

The extra fat that overweight or obese people have in their bodies, doesn’t just increase your weight, it is actively harmful. This fat creates hormones (including oestrogen, testosterone and insulin) and proteins (also known as growth hormones), that change how our bodies’ cells behave. These changes can increase our risk of developing cancer and other diseases.

These hormones and proteins travel around our bodies in our blood stream, so putting us at greater risk of developing different types of cancer in different locations.

Belly fat – found in people who have large tummies (known as being ‘apple shaped’), has been linked to a number of cancers, including bowel, kidney, oesophageal, pancreatic and breast cancer.

According to research carried out in this field, these are some of the cancers that are found more commonly in people who are overweight or obese:

  • breast cancer (in women who have been through the menopause)
  • bowel cancer
  • womb cancer
  • oesophageal cancer
  • gastric cardia cancer (a form of stomach cancer)
  • pancreatic cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • liver cancer
  • also probably gallbladder, ovarian and aggressive prostate cancers
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Disclaimer

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.