Many factors influence body weight - genes, though the effect is small, and heredity is not destiny; prenatal and early life influences; poor diets; too much television watching; too little physical activity and sleep; and our food and physical activity environment.
What Tips the Scales Toward Excess Weight?
The causes of obesity are as varied as the people it affects.
At its most basic, of course, obesity results when someone regularly takes in more calories than needed. The body stores these excess calories as body fat, and over time the extra pounds add up. Eat fewer calories than the body burns, weight goes down. This equation can be deceptively simple, though, because it doesn’t account for the multitude of factors that affect what we eat, how much we exercise, and how our bodies process all this energy. A complex web surrounds a basic problem.
What are some of the factors that increase the risk of obesity?
Genes Are Not Destiny
Heredity plays a role in obesity but generally to a much lesser degree than many people might believe. Rather than being obesity’s sole cause, genes seem to increase the risk of weight gain and interact with other risk factors in the environment, such as unhealthy diets and inactive lifestyles. And healthy lifestyles can counteract these genetic effects.
Prenatal and Postnatal Influences
Early life is important, too. Pregnant mothers who smoke or who are overweight may have children who are more likely to grow up to be obese adults. Excessive weight gain during infancy also raises the risk of adult obesity, while being breastfed may lower the risk.
How can overweight and obesity be reduced?
Overweight and obesity, as well as their related noncommunicable diseases, are largely preventable. Supportive environments and communities are fundamental in shaping people’s choices, making the healthier choice of foods and regular physical activity the easiest choice (accessible, available and affordable), and therefore preventing obesity.
At the individual level, people can:
- limit energy intake from total fats and sugars;
- increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts;
- engage in regular physical activity (60 minutes a day for children and 150 minutes per week for adults).
Individual responsibility can only have its full effect where people have access to a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, at the societal level it is important to:
- support individuals in following the recommendations above, through sustained political commitment and the collaboration of many public and private stakeholders;
- make regular physical activity and healthier dietary choices available, affordable and easily accessible to all - especially the poorest individuals.
The food industry can play a significant role in promoting healthy diets by:
- reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods;
- ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers;
- practicing responsible marketing especially those aimed at children and teenagers;
- ensuring the availability of healthy food choices and supporting regular physical activity practice in the workplace.
What’s become the typical Western diet - frequent, large meals high in refined grains, red meat, unhealthy fats, and sugary drinks - plays one of the largest roles in obesity. Foods that are lacking in the Western diet - whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts - seem to help with weight control, and also help prevent chronic disease.
Too Much Television, Too Little Activity, and Too Little Sleep
Television watching is a strong obesity risk factor, in part because exposure to food and beverage advertising can influence what people eat. Physical activity can protect against weight gain, but globally, people just aren’t doing enough of it. Lack of sleep - another hallmark of the Western lifestyle - is also emerging as a risk factor for obesity.
Toxic Environment - Food and Physical Activity
As key as individual choices are when it comes to health, no one person behaves in a vacuum. The physical and social environment in which people live plays a huge role in the food and activity choices they make. And, unfortunately, in the U.S. and increasingly around the globe, this environment has become toxic to healthy living: The incessant and unavoidable marketing of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. The lack of safe areas for exercising. The junk food sold at school, at work, and at the corner store. Add it up, and it’s tough for individuals to make the healthy choices that are so important to a good quality of life and a healthy weight.
Obesity and its causes have, in many ways, become woven into the fabric of our society. To successfully disentangle them will take a multifaceted approach that not only gives individuals the skills to make healthier choices but also sets in place policy and infrastructure that support those choices.
Revision date: July 9, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.