On the surface, obesity is simply too much body fat. But this condition can mean increased health risks across a broad spectrum of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.

The effects and health risks of obesity can vary widely, depending on the severity of the condition.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says obesity has reached global epidemic status, citing about 2.8 million annual deaths resulting from obesity worldwide.

Although body fat is usually easy to detect, obesity is not necessarily easy to diagnose. That's because varying amounts of muscle mass and how much water the body retains can affect body weight.

Many health professionals use body mass index (BMI) to determine whether patients are obese. BMI is body weight in kilograms divided by height in meters. In general, a BMI of 30 or higher is obese.

Other symptoms of obesity include becoming winded easily, feeling tired during the day and sore joints.

Most doctors will not diagnose obesity based on BMI alone. If a patient has a BMI above 30, the doctor typically submits the patient to other tests before making a diagnosis.

These tests could examine the patient's liver function, cholesterol levels, thyroid gland function or heart beat, among other factors.

Potentially obese patients also will usually undergo a general physical exam to test for other symptoms or effects of obesity.

The first and most common treatment for obesity is typically a simple change of habits — eating, exercise and sleeping habits, for example. Health professionals will usually guide patients to make sure they lose weight at a safe speed.

Some people are severaly obese and may require other forms of treatment. Prescription weight-loss medicines — like FDA-approved lorcaserin (brand name Belviq) and orlistat (brand name Xenical) — can block the body's ability to absorb certain nutrients or decrease appetite.

Eating can be an addiction for some people. In such cases, doctors may prescribe counseling or support groups.

Often used as a last resort due to potentially fatal complications like blood clots, weight-loss surgery can result in dramatic weight loss in a short amount of time.

A common weight-loss surgery is gastric bypass. In gastric bypass surgery, the surgeon decreases the size of the patient's stomach and redirects where some food goes in the body. For the patient, a smaller stomach means he feels full more quickly, and not all the nutrients he eats are absorbed.

Some people are born with genetic factors that cause them to be obese, but in general, the main causes of obesity are overeating and inactivity.

Simply put, consuming more calories than the body can burn results in weight gain. This is because the body will store excess calories as body fat. Exercise increases the number of calories the body burns and, therefore, can aid in weight loss or obesity prevention.

Other causes of and contributing factors to obesity include getting too little sleep and certain medications. Both insomnia and some medications can cause hormonal or chemical changes that cause increased appetite or cravings for unhealthy foods.

Most general physicians can direct their patients to reputable dietitians, support groups and weight-loss gyms that specialize in working with obese patients.

As with any condition that requires behavioral changes, notifying friends and family of weight-loss goals can help keep patients on track and provide an additional support network.

In the face of an ever-increasing number of people with obesity, many people have developed alternative methods for losing weight. While many of these practices are likely healthy, they haven't all been studied extensively for side effects and potential risks.

Alternative obesity treatments include drinking green tea, which is said to increase calorie burn; acupuncture; and yoga, among many more. Talk to a doctor before beginning any alternative treatment.

For almost everyone, obesity is a curable condition. Losing weight can be very difficult, however — especially when overeating and inactivity result from psychological conditions like addiction.

During weight loss, patients with obesity should stay focused on the overall goal of reaching a healthy weight, remembering the serious health risks obesity poses. Many support groups cater to obese people and provide a network of patients working toward a common goal.

Review Date: 
May 17, 2012