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Dis Mon. 1989 Jul;35(7):449-537.

Obesity: basic considerations and clinical approaches.

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  • 1Section of Diabetes and Clinical Nutrition, USC School of Medicine, Los Angeles.


Obesity, defined as an excess of body fat, can be measured with a variety of techniques, but in most epidemiologic studies it is estimated from height and weight or from skinfold thickness. The "gold standard" for body fat is the body density from which fat and fat-free body mass can be calculated. The new technique of bioelectric impedance analysis may substantially improve the estimation of total body fat. For estimating regional fat distribution, either waist to hip circumference ratio or subscapular skinfold have been most useful. Using the body mass index, defined as weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters (kilogram per square meter), the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that 26%, or 34 million, adult Americans aged 20 to 75 were overweight. The prevalence of severe overweight (a body mass index above 30 kg/m2) is higher in the United States and Canada than in Great Britain, the Netherlands, or Australia. Obesity results from an increase in energy intake relative to expenditure. Total daily energy expenditure includes energy used during resting metabolism, energy associated with the ingestion of food, and energy needed for physical activity. The obese are often observed to be less active, but since carrying a heavier load requires more energy, their total energy expenditure may not be low. A low resting metabolic rate has been suggested as a predictor of future risk of becoming obese. Adipose tissue is the major site for fat storage and may contain more than 90% of total energy stores. The increase in body mass index or degree of body weight is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, gall bladder disease, and diabetes mellitus. When fat is centrally located in either males or females, the risk for these diseases is also increased, and may be a more important risk factor than total overweight itself. Genetic factors form the background from which obesity develops. The best estimates suggest that these genetic factors may be of less importance than environmental events in determination of total body fat and its distribution. Obesity can be classified on the basis of the total number of fat cells and regional fat distribution by using the etiological factors which caused the obesity or by determining the age at which the obesity began. Regardless of the cause, treatment for obesity should be based on an evaluation of the individual's risk from obesity as compared with the risk of the treatment under consideration. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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