PROVO — Obesity has become a worldwide pandemic, but stereotypes about its cause being a simple lack of willpower have kept it on the back burner of medical research.

Dr. Steven Tersigni, who specializes in bariatric surgery to deal with obesity, said more than 300 million people worldwide are obese and more than 1 billion are overweight.

Speaking to an audience at BYU's annual Education Week, he said the rate of obesity has skyrocketed in the past 25 years, and three in five Americans are overweight. Rather than simply being a matter of overeating, obesity is "a chronic disease" that merits the kind of attention and research that other major health issues like AIDS receive, Tersigni said.

Latter-day Saints are taught that their bodies are temples provided by God to house their spirits, yet those who are obese suffer not only physical health problems, but emotional problems as well.

While an excessive number of calories is the basis for obesity, contributing factors include genetics, minimal physical activity, psychological and social issues, he said, noting there are usually "multi-factorial reasons" that people become obese.

"The normal person will have two pieces of pizza and be satisfied, so they stop eating," he said. Obese people "will have two pieces of pizza and be full, but not be satisfied, so they eat the whole pizza."

In that situation, there is some reason to suspect neurotransmitters in the brain are out of whack and create the cravings so many obese people say they experience. Sometimes those body chemicals can be replaced with medication, he said.

Genetics is particularly important if both parents were obese, he said, because there is an 80 percent probability the child will be obese as well. "Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger," he said, noting the importance of social and psychological factors. Those who are obese are now "the only socially acceptable class of people to discriminate against."

Obesity is most often calculated using a mathematical formula called the Body Mass Index, or BMI. Men with more than 25 percent body fat and women with more than 30 percent body fat are considered obese.

As a surgeon, Tersigni said he's seen the quality of life dramatically improve in some patients, many of whom "survive but don't function," according to one person who talked about his weight as part of a video presentation.

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Excess body fat in the abdominal cavity is more dangerous than in other areas of the body, he said, leading to a wide variety of medical problems, including dramatically increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer.

At a medical conference in Rome he recently attended, Tersigni said new medical developments discussed suggest that Type II diabetes can be controlled with surgery. "That will start coming to the forefront in the future."

If you have questions about obesity, e-mail Tersigni at