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The #1 Cause of Obesity, Say Researchers

Cardiologist explains the main causes of obesity.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Obesity is a worldwide problem that affects millions of people and increases the risk of major health issues like diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and high blood pressure. The World Health Organization states, "Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese. Once associated with high-income countries, obesity is now also prevalent in low- and middle-income countries." It's a leading cause of preventable death in the United States and Dr. Mohammed S. Alo, DO Board Certified Cardiologist and Certified Personal Trainer Assistant Clinical Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, Midwestern University and author of Actual Weight Loss: The No Nonsense Weight Loss Plan Without Gimmicks, Diets, Fads, and Restrictions explains why obesity is a common problem in the U.S. and what causes the disease. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Obesity is a Common Problem in the U.S.

Nutritionist inspecting a woman's waist using a measuring tape to prescribe a weight loss diet

Dr. Alo says, "Obesity has become the number one health risk in the United States. It used to be smoking, but less than 20% of the population smokes now. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DC, obesity rates among adults have soared to 41.9% and the childhood obesity rate is now approaching 20%.  The reasons for the obesity epidemic are multifactorial. We have a severe lack of information and education on obesity as well as less emphasis on activity. Couple this with high density hyperpalatable foods, and you have a recipe for disaster."


How to Help Prevent Obesity?

Doctor talking with an obese woman and measuring her.

"The most important way to prevent obesity is with education," Dr. Alo emphasizes. "Unfortunately, this is also the most difficult and resource intensive way to help prevent obesity. The internet is littered with misinformation and it is very accessible. Almost every fitness guru online is touting some new diet, supplement, or magic pill to combat obesity. Unfortunately, none of these gimmicks work long term. Sure, almost anything will cause weight loss short term, but long term and permanent weight loss is not easy. The public is under an enormous media onslaught of misinformation. Whether it be from the mass media or random Facebook gurus, our lives are full of weight loss advice being handed out left and right. Education will be the cornerstone of any successful obesity prevention program."


Misinformation and Education


Dr. Alo states, "We need to revamp the education system in the US to provide better weight loss guidelines, tips, counseling and practical applications. Sure, you have to eat less food, but how do you approach that practically? How do you teach children and teenagers to eat the correct amount of calories? How do you teach the public to eat healthier, when they are under the impression that healthier means more expensive. We need to teach a wholesome and comprehensive nutrition strategy and it has to start in pre-kindergarten."


Readily Available, Cheap, Hyperpalatable Food

potato chips

According to Dr. Alo, "The second biggest issue is the over availability of calorie dense, hyperpalatable food. Hyperpalatable foods are tasty and easy to over consume. A good example of a hyperpalatable, calorie dense food is potato chips. It's crunchy, salty, leaves a yummy residue on your hands, full of calories, and very easy to overeat. You can't eat just one! Imagine if instead of potato chips you had to eat one boiled potato? It's a tenth of the calories, super filling, but just doesn't taste as good, and isn't as fun to consume. You don't have a yummy residue leftover on your hands to lick off."


Reduction in Activity

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

"Although gym memberships have increased since the 1990s, Americans are still less active," Dr. Alo says. "Fitness trackers and step counters have shown a trend towards less activity. While exercise is not necessary for weight loss, it can help keep weight off that you have already lost. This is important for weight maintenance. We don't have a weight loss problem in the US. Millions of Americans have lost weight. We have a problem with keeping it off. We need to focus on teaching the public on proper fitness and exercise routines and how to use them effectively for weight maintenance."


Crash Diets


Dr. Alo explains, "The biggest problem is that everyone wants a quick fix, crash diet. You see ads online all the time for 30, 60, and 90 day weight loss programs. These may work in the short term, but rarely cause long term, sustainable weight loss. We need long term solutions, not crash diets. Fitness influencers need to stop worrying about their bottom lines with their next 30 day challenge, and start teaching people how to actually lose weight permanently and sustainably. Along with crash diets, Instagram gurus are always pushing overly restrictive diets. You can't eat bread, can't eat anything except from 1-4pm, have to avoid gluten, can't drink pop or eat pizza. These overly restrictive diets cause people to have a very bad relationship with food, and you can not stick to them long term and revert back to your old eating habits. We need to teach people to eat foods they enjoy, but within reason and that no food is off limits."


Focusing Just On Cardio

couple jogging while holding bags of trash

"Too many people believe they are going to run off their calories and lose weight with excessive cardio," Dr. Alo shares. "Again, this works for a few months, but isn't sustainable long term. You should do activities that you enjoy. You shouldn't be doing them because you think you are going to lose weight. You need a calorie deficit to lose weight, and for the vast majority of people, that will mean eating less food. It's very easy to reduce calories in, it's not that easy to increase calories out. Exercise activity only comprises about 5% of your total daily energy expenditure, and it's very difficult to increase it past that amount. We also now believe in the "constrained model of exercise", which states that no matter how much more exercise you do in a day, the amount of calories you can burn with exercise is capped. So whether you jog for a mile or thirteen, your body will adapt and your calories burned will be constrained and limited to a certain amount. If we begin teaching these concepts and frameworks from an early age, we can hopefully reverse the rising obesity trends and hope to eliminate obesity on a more permanent basis."

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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