There are few words in our culture more loaded with negative meanings than “fat”. To be fat – especially in women – is often to feel like a social outcast. In contrast to being overly thin (“You can never be too thin”, as the saying goes), to be overly large is commonly regarded as a sign of greed and laziness – not to mention “unhealthiness”.

Yet the truth is far more complex and some researchers have concluded that the health risks of moderate obesity (about 11kg/28lb over the conventional height/weight chart limit) have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, there is evidence that it is healthier than excessive thinness. It is perfectly possible to be fat and fit, while trying to get thin can seriously damage your health.

Excessive dieting can actually lead to long-term weight gain because your body is programmed to get back to a physiological “set point” as soon as possible – and while you have been dieting your metabolism has slowed down, making it more difficult to lose the weight next time round. However, true obesity (defined as a 20 percent excess of body weight) is a different matter and does cause physical problems. If your weight is enough to restrict movement it may be difficult to take exercise. Arthritis may also be exacerbated by weight, and obesity may be a cause of late-onset diabetes as well as of cancer of the colon and rectum in men. It has also been associated with heart disease and high blood pressure.

But why do people become obese in the first place? The answer lies in a complex interaction between eating styles, genetic inheritance, exercise, and your physiological set point. Moreover, people may become or remain obese for various psychological reasons such as fear of a relationship – being fat may be seen as a form of protection.

Other factors involved in the complex process of weight gain include food allergies, nutritional deficiencies, chemical toxicity, a sluggish metabolism, lack of exercise, a diet high in refined and processed foods, insulin imbalance, or impaired thermogenesis (the mechanism by which fat is burned to produce heat).

There may also be further psychological complications of guilt, self-loathing and fear of “forbidden” food, driving the vicious circle of dieting and bingeing – as well as causing one of the most serious health problems of being fat, namely stress.

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