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What Obesity Means for Women

Carrying too much weight, especially around the middle, increases the risk of many diseases
Written by 
Bob Barnett
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

As a woman, you know your body is different from a man’s. That’s especially true when it comes to body fat, which plays unique biological roles for females. Obesity isn’t healthy for anyone: In both men and women, it increases the risk of stroke, osteoarthritis, asthma, sleep apnea and certain cancers, such as those of the colon, kidney and gallbladder. But when it comes to some health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, obesity increases the risks even more in women than in men.

It sounds scary, but there is actually reassuring news if you’re willing to take steps toward a healthier lifestyle. Preventing weight gain has many health benefits. And if you’ve already tipped the scales too far to the right, losing even a modest amount of weight can substantially lower many risks. In many cases, weight will come off of your belly first; this is important because excess belly fat increases inflammation, which can contribute to disease.


Women and Weight

As a woman, you naturally have more body fat than a man—at appropriate amounts, this is normal and healthy. A woman’s body starts to store extra fat as it gets ready for puberty, and during childbearing years, body fat plays a role in fertility. Before menopause, women tend to carry body fat more in their hips and thighs than in the abdomen, which is also normal.

Certain times in a woman’s life, however, can be a trigger for unhealthy weight gain. One is pregnancy; some women gain more than they need to for a healthy pregnancy (especially if they start out overweight) and find it hard to take it off in the months or years after the baby is born. Around middle age, women’s proportion of fat to body weight increases more than it does in men. And while menopause itself doesn’t cause weight gain, when women do put on pounds after “the change,” it tends to be harmful belly fat, also known as abdominal or visceral fat.

Unlike the fat just under your skin, which mostly stores energy, visceral fat deep in your abdomen acts like an organ. It sends out hormones, immune compounds and inflammatory signals to the liver that disrupt normal functioning in body systems that control your blood cholesterol, blood sugar, inflammation and hormonal balance.


Health Risks

Being overweight (a BMI of 25 up to 29.9) increases health risks, but the dangers jump with obesity. More than a third of American women over age 20 are classified as obese, meaning that they have a body mass index (BMI) over 30. (It’s important to note that BMI is a screening tool, not a diagnosis of disease; the number can sometimes be misleading, so it’s best to discuss your BMI with your doctor.)

Let’s dig a little deeper into the unique health risks that obesity, especially abdominal obesity, poses for women:

  • Diabetes. Obesity increases type 2 diabetes risk in both men and women, but it’s a greater risk for women. A high waist circumference—35 or greater—also ups the chance a woman will develop diabetes more than it does in a man. Your risk is also higher than a man’s if you’ve been gaining weight during adulthood. 
     
  • Heart Disease. Weight gain in adulthood is more strongly associated with heart disease in women than in men. Obesity produces inflammation, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease—especially in women. And while diabetes increases heart disease risk in both genders, the risk is greater for women.

More: What Women Need to Know About Heart Disease

  • Cancer. Overweight and obesity increase the risk of some female cancers. This is probably in part because fat produces estrogen, which affects cancer growth. Heavy women are at higher risk for endometrial cancer regardless of their menopausal status, while the risk of breast cancer increases in overweight and obese women after menopause.
     
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). This hormonal condition, characterized by higher-than-normal “male” hormones (androgens), can cause excessive hair growth, oily skin, acne, darkened skin patches, cysts on the ovaries and irregular periods. It’s a common cause of infertility. About 80 percent of women who get PCOS are obese, and weight loss alone is often sufficient to bring hormones back into balance. 
     
  • Maternity Complications. Obesity, especially belly fat, makes it harder to get pregnant. And if you’re overweight or obese when you do get pregnant, or if you gain too much weight during pregnancy, you put both your health and your baby’s at risk. You’ll have a greater chance of developing dangerous conditions such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy), and you’ll be more likely to have problems during your baby’s delivery. This doesn’t mean you should go on a crash diet before or during your pregnancy; instead, focus on eating a balanced diet, doing appropriate exercise, getting enough quality rest and reducing your stress.


Health Benefits of Modest Weight Loss

It’s important to know that you can reduce your chance of developing diseases associated with obesity by working toward a healthy weight—and you don’t need to reach your ultimate goal before you start to see benefits. If you are at increased risk of developing diabetes, for example, regularly exercising and losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can cut your risk of developing the disease in half. Weight loss also lowers high blood cholesterol, cutting your risk of heart disease.

And, of course, losing weight in a healthy way has a myriad of other benefits for body and mind. Get started on your journey with our article Aiming for a Healthy Weight, which explains how to calculate your BMI and waist circumference. (Neither of these screening tools are appropriate during pregnancy.) If your numbers are concerning, work with your doctor to come up with a plan for bringing your weight into the healthy range. 

Hear more from our practitioners about why achieving a healthy weight is important by listening to a clip from Canyon Ranch Consult Hour, a Sirius XM special presentation.

Reference(s) 
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
The Danone Institute
Harvard School of Public Health
The International Menopause Society
Mayo Clinic
National Cancer Institute
National Center for Health Statistics
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
The Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
Oregon Health and Science University
About the author 
Bob Barnett is a New York City-based health journalist, editor and book author who has been writing about nutrition, fitness, psychology and lifestyle medicine for more than 20 years.