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Causes of Obesity in Men

It’s time to face up to what overeating and inactivity are doing to us
By Arthur Allen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by James E. Gerace, MD

The prevalence of obesity among American men has doubled in only 25 years, and it’s killing us. A 2004 survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 71% of men 20 years old and over were overweight and 31% were obese. The same survey conducted in the late 1970s had found 47% of men were overweight and 15% were obese.

Science is searching for the causes of obesity and exploring the role of genes, the diets of pregnant women, and the feeding habits of babies. But the bottom line is this: Most of us have settled into sedentary lifestyles and have trouble resisting the temptations of cheap, plentiful food our culture has served up.

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The biggest health issues for overweight men

It isn’t good to be fat, but there’s just so much good food and so many ways of entertaining ourselves from a swivel chair or a couch. As a result, a host of health issues linked to obesity threatens us unless we learn how to push back from the table earlier and head out the door for a walk or something faster more often.

“By the time you reach 35,” says George L. Blackburn, MD, PhD, “you don’t need to gain any more weight.” Blackburn holds the S. Daniel Abraham Chair of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School, and he tells WebMD that as men get older, muscle tends to be replaced by fatty tissue. Since fatty tissue doesn’t need the same amount of energy to maintain itself, you gain weight. But if you’ve gained more than 20 pounds since college, Blackburn says, something about your food selection and exercise program is out of balance. “You need to run, not walk,” he says, “to see a health care provider who’s experienced in finding healthy lifestyles.”

While women put weight on their hips, breasts, and limbs, men gather it around the waist, where it circulates through the liver, causing metabolic problems like diabetes. Added weight puts you at risk of heart attack, cancer, hypertension, and sleep apnea. It can also affect your sex life and make it harder to exercise and enjoy your kids.

Can genes cause obesity in men?

How did we get so fat? “Obviously there’s a genetic component to obesity, “ says Barbara Rolls, PhD. Rolls holds the Helen A. Guthrie Chair in Nutritional Sciences at Pennsylvania State University. “But,” she adds, “the surge in obesity clearly can’t be due to genetic changes. We don’t evolve that quickly.”

That said, when it comes to getting fat, not all men are created equal. The genetic differences are clear from studies conducted by Claude Bouchard, PhD, of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. Controlled portions of food were given over 100 days to sets of identical twins. While weight gain was similar for each pair of twins, it varied dramatically among the pairs. Some sets of twins gained as few as eight pounds during the “overfeeding” experiment, while others put on as much as 26 pounds.

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