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What Causes Overweight and Obesity?

Energy Balance
For most people, overweight and obesity are caused by not having energy balance. Weight is balanced by the amount of energy or calories you get from food and drinks (this is called energy IN) equaling the energy your body uses for things like breathing, digesting, and being physically active (this is called energy OUT).

Energy balance means that your energy IN equals your energy OUT. To maintain a healthy weight, your energy IN and OUT don’t have to balance exactly every day. It’s the balance over time that helps you maintain a healthy weight.

  • The same amount of energy IN and energy OUT over time = weight stays the same
  • More IN than OUT over time = weight gain
  • More OUT than IN over time = weight loss

Overweight and obesity happen over time when you take in more calories than you use.

Other Causes

Physical Inactivity

Many Americans aren’t very physically active. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that many people spend hours in front of TVs and computers doing work, schoolwork, and leisure activities. In fact, more than 2 hours a day of regular TV viewing time has been linked to overweight and obesity.

Other reasons for not being active include: relying on cars instead of walking to places, fewer physical demands at work or at home because modern technology and conveniences reduce the need to burn calories, and lack of physical education classes in schools for children.

People who are inactive are more likely to gain weight because they don’t burn up the calories that they take in from food and drinks. An inactive lifestyle also raises your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, colon cancer, and other health problems.

Environment
Our environment doesn’t always help with healthy lifestyle habits; in fact, it encourages obesity. Some reasons include:
  • Lack of neighborhood sidewalks and safe places for recreation. Not having area parks, trails, sidewalks, and affordable gyms makes it hard for people to be physically active.
  • Work schedules. People often say that they don’t have time to be physically active given the long hours at work and the time spent commuting back and forth to work.
  • Oversized food portions. Americans are surrounded by huge food portions in restaurants, fast food places, gas stations, movie theaters, supermarkets, and even home. Some of these meals and snacks can feed two or more people. Eating large portions means too much energy IN. Over time, this will cause weight gain if it isn’t balanced with physical activity.
  • Lack of access to healthy foods. Some people don’t live in neighborhoods that have supermarkets that sell healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Or if they do, these items are often too costly.
  • Food advertising. Americans are surrounded by ads from food companies. Often children are the targets of advertising for high-calorie, high-fat snacks and sugary drinks. The goal of these ads is to sway people to buy these high-calorie foods, and often they do.
Genes and Family History
Studies of identical twins who have been raised apart show that genes have a strong influence on one’s weight. Overweight and obesity tend to run in families. Your chances of being overweight are greater if one or both of your parents are overweight or obese. Your genes also may affect the amount of fat you store in your body and where on your body you carry the extra fat.

Because families also share food and physical activity habits, there is a link between genes and the environment. Children adopt the habits of their parents. So, a child with overweight parents who eat high-calorie foods and are inactive will likely become overweight like the parents. On the other hand, if a family adopts healthful food and physical activity habits, the child’s chance of being overweight or obese is reduced.

Health Conditions
Sometimes hormone problems cause overweight and obesity. These problems include:
  • Underactive thyroid (also called hypothyroidism). This is a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone. Lack of thyroid hormone will slow down your metabolism and cause weight gain. You’ll also feel tired and weak.
  • Cushing’s syndrome. This is a condition in which the body’s adrenal glands make too much of the hormone cortisol. Cushing’s syndrome also can happen when people take high levels of medicines such as prednisone for long periods of time. People with Cushing’s syndrome gain weight, have upper-body obesity, a rounded face, fat around the neck, and thin arms and legs.
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This is a condition that affects about 5 to 10 percent of women of childbearing age. Women with PCOS often are obese, have excess hair growth, and have reproductive and other health problems due to high levels of hormones called androgens.

Medicines
Certain medicines such as corticosteroids (for example, prednisone), antidepressants (for example, Elavil , and medicines for seizures (for example, Neurontin ) may cause you to gain weight. These medicines can slow the rate at which your body burns calories, increase your appetite, or cause your body to hold on to extra water all of which can lead to weight gain.

Emotional Factors
Some people eat more than usual when they are bored, angry, or stressed. Over time, overeating will lead to weight gain and may cause overweight or obesity.

Smoking
Some people gain weight when they stop smoking. One reason is that food often tastes and smells better. Another reason is because nicotine raises the rate at which your body burns calories, so you burn fewer calories when you stop smoking. However, smoking is a serious health risk, and quitting is more important than possible weight gain.

Age
As you get older, you tend to lose muscle, especially if you’re less active. Muscle loss can slow down the rate at which your body burns calories. If you don’t reduce your calorie intake as you get older, you may gain weight. Midlife weight gain in women is mainly due to aging and lifestyle, but menopause also plays a role. Many women gain around 5 pounds during menopause and have more fat around the waist than they did before.

Pregnancy
During pregnancy, women gain weight so that the baby gets proper nourishment and develops normally. After giving birth, some women find it hard to lose the weight. This may lead to overweight or obesity, especially after a few pregnancies

Lack of Sleep
Studies find that the less people sleep, the more likely they are to be overweight or obese. People who report sleeping 5 hours a night, for example, are much more likely to become obese compared to people who sleep 7–8 hours a night.

People who sleep fewer hours also seem to prefer eating foods that are higher in calories and carbohydrates, which can lead to overeating, weight gain, and obesity over time. Hormones that are released during sleep control appetite and the body’s use of energy. For example, insulin controls the rise and fall of blood sugar levels during sleep. People who don’t get enough sleep have insulin and blood sugar levels that are similar to those in people who are likely to have diabetes.

Also, people who don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis seem to have high levels of a hormone called ghrelin and low levels of a hormone called leptin