Obesity research has yielded a complicated picture of the underlying causes of the condition. The simple cause is ingestion of more calories than are required for energy, the excess being stored in the body as fat. Inactivity and insufficient exercise can be contributing factors; the less active the person, the fewer calories are needed to maintain normal body weight. Overeating may result from unhealthful patterns of eating established by the family and cultural environment, perhaps exacerbated by psychological distress, an emotional dependence on food, or the omnipresence of high-calorie foods.
In some cases, obesity can come from an eating disorder. It has been shown, for example, that binging for some people releases natural opiates in the brain, providing a sense of well-being and physical pleasure. Other studies have found a strong relationship between obesity in women and childhood sexual abuse.
Some weight-loss experts see obesity as based upon genetics and physiology rather than as a behavioral or psychological problem. For example, rat studies have shown that fat cells secrete a hormone that helps the rat's brain assess the amount of body fat present. The brain tries to keep the amount of that hormone (which also appears to act on the brain area that regulates appetite and metabolic rate) at a set level, resulting in the so-called set point—a weight that the body comes back to, even after resolute dieting. The gene that encodes this hormone, called the obese or ob gene, has been isolated in both rats and humans. In addition, a gene that influences obesity and the onset of diabetes has been identified. It has been estimated that from 8 to 30 different genes may influence obesity.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.