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The #1 Cause of Obesity To Watch For

Experts explain what to know about obesity. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Obesity is a chronic disease that can cause other health issues such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease and more. In addition, excess weight can impact a person's mental and emotional well-being . According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity rate for adults in the U.S went from 30.5% in 1999–2000 up to 42.4% in 2017–2018—and severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%. So what's causing this epidemic? Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who weigh in. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What's Considered Obesity

Woman hand holding her own belly fat.

Dr. Angela Glasnapp, MD, Director of Bariatric Surgery at Staten Island University Hospital shares, "Obesity, defined as a BMI (body mass index) over 30, is a disease of hormonal imbalance whereby patients experience excessive fat storage leading to the development of many other illnesses. Obesity increases the risks of high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, certain types of cancers, infertility in men and women, liver disease, to name a few. Patients with obesity have an abnormally high 'weight set point.' Set point can be thought of as a body's thermostat for weight. We all have a set point, and our bodies are able to maintain a relatively constant weight through a variety of intricate checks and balances involving our brain and fat cells. With obesity, the body defends a pathologically high weight and prevents weight loss by releasing certain chemicals into the bloodstream that increase hunger, decrease satiety, and decrease metabolism whenever a person tries to lose weight by eating less calories."


The U.S. has High Obesity Rates

Doctor measuring obese man waist body fat.

According to Dr. Glasnapp, "Obesity is an epidemic in the US with over 40% of adults suffering from this disease. It is unclear why the US has such a high rate of obesity, but some proposed reasons include an abundance of processed foods and sedentary lifestyles. Genetics also plays a major role."


Processed Foods

hamburger or cheeseburger, deep-fried squid rings, french fries, drink and ketchup on wooden table

One of the many causes of obesity is eating too many processed foods. Megan Mescher-Cox, DO, Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Lifestyle Medicine and Obesity Medicine of Dignity Health Group.reveals, "Processed foods includes the "junk food" such as cookies and chips but also crackers, refined grains such as white flour, white bread, etc. These foods are devoid of nutrients and fiber and very high in calories. People are starting to trend more towards plant-based diets which are very healthful if it is a whole-food plant-based diet but don't be fooled – the plant-based meat alternatives that are sold are more appropriately called "processed foods" than healthful foods and will also contribute to weight gain." 


Lack of Sleep

Woman being sick having flu sitting on bed alone at home, having high fever or temperature, touching forehead

Cox says, "Obesity is consistently associated with lack of sleep or an excess of sleep. Many factors contribute to this including hormonal shifts with sleep deprivation that make it harder to lose weight, an increase in cravings and intake for high calorie foods if someone is sleep deprived, and lower levels of 'self regulation', or someone's ability to say no to an unhealthy option, with sleep deprivation. A goal of 7-9 hours of sleep nightly, typically 7.5 hours is where we see the most normal weights."


Intake of High-Calorie, Low-Fiber Foods

woman choosing healthy apple instead of junk dessert as a food swap to cut calories

"This is slightly different from the above because certain foods are somewhat 'natural' but are high-calorie and low-fiber and still contribute to obesity," says Cox. "A great example is fruit juice. It has had the fiber removed from it so it is concentrated sugar and although natural sugar, since no longer in its natural form it can now be overconsumed and contribute to weight gain."


Not Enough Fruits and Vegetables

happy woman cuts fruit in bright kitchen

Cox emphasizes "Eating healthy foods is just as important as avoiding unhealthy foods. Higher level of fruit and vegetable intake is consistently associated with healthful body weight. A great way to work towards health is to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables (especially vegetables if our goal is weight loss). The goal is for a minimum of HALF a person's intake of food to be from fruits and vegetables." 


Sedentary Lifestyle

overweight woman at home lying on the floor, laptop in front of her, prepared to work out on mat according to video

"Regular exercise has been well known to regulate weight and a goal of 30 minutes at least five times weekly is helpful to avoid Obesity or other medical conditions but it is just as important to avoid a sedentary lifestyle," Cox states. "Sitting for long periods of time throughout the day – even if someone exercises – is an independent risk factor for medical conditions."



Family sitting at the table and celebrating holiday.

According to Cox, "There are genetic factors that play a role in someone's weight. I usually discuss this with patients in the same fashion that we discuss other genetic risk factors: if we know that a person is at above-average risk for a medical condition, it is even more important that we address the modifiable risk factors to optimize their health. This is the same as if a person is at increased risk for heart disease or dementia."

RELATED: The #1 Sign Your Blood Sugar is "Way Too High"


Other Causes of Obesity

Man eating pizza having a takeaway at home relaxing resting

Dr. Glasnapp explains, "Causes of obesity are multifactorial and include: genetics, physiologic conditions (certain diseases such as diabetes and PCOS), behavioral (emotional health very closely affects physical health and many people suffering from obesity use food to self-medicate for emotional pain), environmental factors and certain medications (such as steroids and some antidepressants) can trigger obesity in patients with a predisposition to develop the disease."

RELATED: Signs Your Gut is "Unhealthy," Say Physicians


How Can People Help Prevent Obesity?

30-something woman and man and a young child eating salad at home
Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia

"Obesity can be prevented by early intervention with education about healthy eating and behaviors at a young age," says Dr. Glasnapp. "Also, we know that babies born to mothers who suffer from obesity are more likely to develop obesity as well. Therefore, preventive medicine and obesity treatments for women of child bearing age can help decrease the chances of obesity in their offspring." 

RELATED: Habits Secretly Increasing Your Abdominal Fat, Say Physicians


Treatments for Obesity


Dr. Glasnapp says the following methods are common treatments for obesity.

  • "Diet and exercise (only 1% of patients are successful at losing significant weight and keeping it off after 5 years). 
  • FDA approved anti-obesity medications (must have a BMI of 30 or greater or 27 or greater with an obesity related illness such as diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea or high cholesterol). Weight loss medications can lead to ~10% total body weight loss if patients combine the medication with a healthy diet and exercise routine. Weight regains can occur after a patient stops the medication. 
  • Bariatric surgery is the most effective treatment for obesity leading to 50-75% excess weight within 1 year of surgery. Options include: the laparoscopic sleeve gastrectomy where ~75% of the stomach is removed with a surgical stapler. The gastric bypass involves creating a small stomach pouch and rerouting the small intestines, altering the pathway of food through the gastrointestinal tract. Both of these surgeries lead to weight loss through a series of changes in various hormones in the body leading to less hunger, more satiety, and increased burning of calories.
  • Most insurances will pay for bariatric surgery if the patient qualifies. They must have a BMI of 40 or greater or a BMI of 35 or greater with an obesity related illness (high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea)."
Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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