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.
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.
This section of the website summarizes promising strategies for obesity prevention, based on a review of expert guidance from major governmental, professional, and public health advocacy organizations.
Keep in mind that these obesity prevention recommendations are based primarily on a review of U.S. expert guidance, unless otherwise indicated; in other countries, different policy approaches may be needed to achieve improvements in food and physical activity environments.
- Choosing healthier foods (whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and protein sources) and beverages
- Limiting unhealthy foods (refined grains and sweets, potatoes, red meat, processed meat) and beverages (sugary drinks)
- Increasing physical activity
- Limiting television time, screen time, and other “sit time”
- Improving sleep
- Reducing stress