Why Are People Obese?

Why are people obese? Is it really because they eat too much and exercise too little? Understanding obesity and the best options to overcome it, requires us to find answer to this fundamental question: why are we obese?

Why are people obese?Why are people obese? Young obese woman unhappy with her weight.

Many people, even experts would think that the answer is simple.

Have you heard of the so-called energy equation? It is also called the calorie input and output equation. 

It goes like this:

People are obese because they eat too much (calorie input) and do less exercise (calorie output).

While that is largely true, it is not the whole story. The World Health Organisation notes that while obesity has been around for as long as humanity, it wa rare rather than the norm, until the 1970s. 

Prior to that decade, about 1 in 30 to 50 people were obese. In 2020, the number has decuple to 1 in 3 people are obese. Today, obesity is a global epidemic brining pain, diseases and premature death to millions of people worldwide, every year.

So what must have suddenly happened between those years? Did people suddenly start eating more and exercising less? 

Let's take a close look as to why are people obese now. But before that, let's wee common facts and myths as to why we are obese. 

Why Are People Obese: Myths & Facts

If you were to ask a 100 persons as to why are people obese, you are likely to get more than 50 different reasons for obesity and weight problems.

The following are the common "usual suspects" obesity is blamed on.  True, some of these reasons do contribute to obesity directly or indirectly. Others are mere myths. Plainly urban myths. Which of these have you heard of before?

We have asterisked (*) those that actually contribute to obesity.

Obesity facts and myths that makes the round include:

  • Obesity is in our genes*
  • It runs in my family*
  • It's my hormones*
  • I am overweight because of my birth control pills*
  • I am jinxed
  • I am obese because of my medicines*
  • Blame it on my PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome)*
  • Slow metabolism*
  • Skipping breakfast
  • Poor sleep*
  • Poverty
  • Pregnancy
  • I pile on weight when I am stressed*
  • It is due to my periods (menstruation)
  • I have added weight since I stopped smoking*
  • It is due to depression*
  • Obesity is due to air, water and food pollution
  • Blame it on video and computer games*
  • Television*
  • Eating too much fast foods*
  • Drinking soda*
  • Not enough exercising enough.*

So what do you think might be causing your obesity?

Or have you been trying to lose weight despite eating healthily and doing exercise?

Let's explain how some of the above asterisked reasons, could lead to obesity and make it difficult for you to lose weight despite eating healthily and exercising. You will be able to see that obesity is not just about eating too much and exercising too little. There is more to it and you can do something about this. 

Top Five Causes of Obesity

1. Poor Quality Diet

Eat whole foods. Avoid processed calorie dense foods.Eat whole foods. Avoid processed calorie dense foods.

I hear a lot of patient tell me that they have tried everything to lose weight but it is not working. When I ask them what exactly they have done, they pull up their app that help with calorie counting. 

Stop doing that. 

Before you crucify me, take a moment to listen to what the latest scientific evidence says. ALL CALORIES ARE NOT THE SAME. 

I am sorry if that comes across like I am screaming. No. I just want that point to sink in. 

A study reported in the foremost medical journal, Nature, reported a study where researchers gave two groups of people the same food, matched for equal calorie and macronutrients content, energy density, sodium and fibre to consume for 2 weeks. 

Their weight were taken at the end of the two weeks.

Then each group swapped their diet to see what would happen. These men, 20 of them, aged between 29 and 32 were admitted into the National Institute for Health Clinical centre for close monitoring. 

At the end of the study, they found that each time, those who eat exactly the same amount of calorie, from unprocessed or minimally processed food lost 0.9kg (nearly 2 pounds) in weight within that two weeks, while those who eat, again same amount of calorie containing food, but from highly processed food sources gained 0.9 kg in weight over the same period. 

Dr. Michael Greger, a world renowned nutritionist, in his book How Not To Diet, made reference to the acronym CRAP, that perfectly describes the fact that all calories are not the same and where your nutrients come from matters. CRAP diet, a word created by the dietitian Jeff Novick stands for Calorie Rich And Processed diets. 

Greger showed that CRAP diets are not only full of bad calories, they wrought damage to our health because they are not natural and not what we were meant to eat and metabolize. How Not To Diet is a top book recommended for successful weight loss. 

The World Health Organization published a study showing the  connection between poor quality diet and obesity. They demonstrated a strong independent relationship between fast food consumption and and the drastic rise in obesity since the 1970s.

We are becoming more obese because of the quality of food we are influenced by clever advertising to buy - more of processed foods and less of natural occurring whole foods. 

Food as we know it, does not just provide calories and proteins and building block. Latest research shows that wholefoods contain more micronutrients that act as signaling molecules to bodily processes involved in weight regulation, hormone balance and more. Processed foods are devoid of such nutrients including the more than 5000 flavonoids known to man. 

So, if you have been wanting to lose weight by counting calories, remembering that eating even a reduced calories from processed foods like white rice, white bread, baggles, croissants, chocolates, refined oatmeals, etc would not work. 

Instead, you want to get your calories and nutrients from foods such as beans, brown rice, steel cut oats, green leafy vegetables, naturally occurring oils, fish, grass fed beef, free range chicken etc. 

2.  Meal Portion Size (Quantity)

A portion size is the amount of meal the size of your fist.A portion size is the amount of meal the size of your fist.

Several studies have linked meat consumption and abdominal obesity. There is nothing wrong with eating meat, if one chooses to. But it is the quantity of meat consumption that is alarming. 

In the 1950s, the average American consumed about 130 pounds of meat per year. In 2018, the average American consumes 222.2 pounds of meat per year!

If meat increases the risk of obesity and we are now eating almost double the amount we ate a few decades ago, is it any surprise that obesity is on the increase? 

Want to lose weight? Consider cutting down on how much meat in your plate. 

What Is More Fattening: Chicken or Beef?

Chicken could be TEN times more fattening than beef!

No. It is not just meat. Our portion size for almost everything has increased. A few years ago, meals were served in modest portions to allow the not so available food go round and further. There were no buying by the bucket of large fries, endless refills, "all-you-can-eat buffet", etc. 

Why the quality of food in your plate is more important than the quantity, quantity still matters. 

The interesting thing is that we tend not to binge on quality foods. No one eats repeated servings of broccoli, or kale or sweet potatoes. Even if you do, it will have less fattening effect compared to eating similar quantity of refined or processed foods.   

What Is An Appropriate Portion Size?

  • A portion size is an amount of food the size of your fist. 
  • Females are encouraged to have no more than one portion size when wanting to lose weight and males, no more than two portion size.
  • A third of your plate should be made up of vegetables to complement other food groups in your plate. 

3. Medical Reasons

Medical reasons could cause obesity - from having:

  • Underactive thyroid
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Cushing disease, to rare conditions like
  • Growth hormone deficiency
  • Syndrome X, etc. 

If you struggle with losing weight, see your doctor to exclude medical reasons. Most of these medical reasons though, only make weight loss difficult, not impossible. 

For some, they are treated with use of medications. 

4. Sedentary Lifestyle

Tony Robbins once said that we all now live a box life. We wake up in a box, shower in a box, eat breakfast from a box, travel to work in a box, work in a box office, take box lifts to the next floor, make calls in a box, get back home in a box, watch a movie or news sitting in front of a box, die in a box and buried in a box

He was trying to explain how we have become sedentary.

Once upon a time, we went to farm, work with basic implements and tools controlled with our hands, processed foods with hand operated machines, walked to and from farm or place of work get involved in activities that take us out door and had a very active life.

Then came the industrial revolution. Farming became mechanized. Industries mushroomed by the day, spawning out refined foods that must be sold. Walking long distances became a taboo. Cars replaced the energetic horse riding or cycling, as it fell within the reach of many. Lifts saw to it that stairs were sidestepped. Computer games and televisions tamed appetite for outdoor pursuits.

We are eating more processed foods and burning more energy. Yes. Our sedentary lifestyle is contributing to obesity. 

Exercise is a very important component to any long term weight loss plan. 

5. Genetic Susceptibility

Yes. Our genes play a role in whether we become obese or not. But not they way you think.

Studies have shown that those with the so-called obesity gene - FTO (which stands for FaT mass and Obesity-associated protein ) gene are more likely to be obese than those without this gene. But you have to have two copies of this gene to be about 3 kg heavier than those without the gene or with only a single copy of the gene. 

Enter epigenetics. 

Numerous studies have shown that even when you have the FTO or obesity gene, eating healthily could switch off the gene and thus the obesity gene would have no effect on you. 

But genetics causes obesity in another way. Again through epigenetics. 

If you have obese parents, their dietary choices could lead to the activation of other less known obesity genes and predisposition in you and even in your yet to be conceived children.

If dad and mom are obese, you have more chances of being obese. This would be because of many inherited (what doctors call polygenic) reasons. These include the fact that your body may not inherit the right regulatory mechanism for your fat burning hormone, or an inherited defect in fat storage or rate of metabolism and more. 

Why Can I Not Lose Weight?

While obesity is fundamentally a problem of eating too much and burning less calories, there are other reasons why people are obese or stay obese and cannot lose weight.

Here are some of such reasons:

  • Self Image. We often fiercely protect who we define ourselves to be. If you deeply belief you are an intelligent person, you will put in earnest effort to look intelligent at all times. If you deeply belief that you are a kind person, you will put in all efforts to be kind. Don't you agree? The same is true with being obese. Many persons who say they want to lose weight do not think that they can be lean and fit. They subconsciously belief that, that is who they are  and will always be - fat. They may reason that they have always been obese from childhood, come from a fat family and nothing they can do to change this. Nothing could be further from the truth! Our deeply ingrained self image affects our thoughts and actions. Your current weight is a reflection of yourself image. But your past or current state should not reflect your future. Anyone can change. If you want to lose weight, start by defining where you are now, where you want to be and define to yourself, how you see yourself. Then define the self image you want to be known for. Once you are clear on that, it would show up in your daily choices and habits. Your self image may be the strongest force holding you back from losing weight. Change it.  
  • Excessive alcohol consumption. We often forget that alcohol contains calories. The more you drink, the more calories you take in and this could add up in time to causing fat storage in your liver, skin and other organs.
  • Sleep deprivation. The Annals of Internal Medicine, 16th October 2012, Vol. 157. No. 8 titled “Impaired Insulin Signalling in Human Adipocytes After Experimental Sleep Restriction: A Randomized, Crossover Study” is the strongest scientific research yet, to support the fact that your obesity could also be due to poor sleep on your part!
  • Sweetened drinks and soft drinks ( a soft drink a day can add 15 pounds to your weight in the course of one year!)
  • Certain medications and conditions. Certain antibiotics use before the age of two years has been shown to increase the likelihood of leading to childhood obesity and of course obesity in later years. So too are some other medications like progesterone containing contraceptive pills, steroids (prednisolone), and many other medications. Medical conditions like low functioning thyroid gland, polycystic ovarian syndrome, etc would cause obesity.  
  • Lifestyles, habits and customs. If you grew up in a family where cooking is not popular (eating out instead), or where cooking is badly done - poor meal choices like fries and oily and fatty meals, instead of fruits and vegetables and lean meat, that influence could also affect why we are obese, rather than a true genetic inheritance. This is a common but often ignored answer to the question, why are people obese.
  • Knowledge and Awareness of what is healthy diet and adequate exercise
  • Stress and comfort eating. If you ask many people who struggle with losing weight, they would tell you that the thought of their being too overweight or obese stresses them out and they then resort to eating more in anger and frustration. Then this makes them put on more weight. And it spirals into a vicious cycle. External stress from work, relationship or life in general too can trigger comfort eating and obesity. Is this you? You can overcome this. Never allow anyone put pressure on you to lose weight. no. Not your spouse, friends or doctor. Do it because you see the health benefit. Even at that, never do it under pressure.

Whatever is causing or contributing to your weight issue can be overcome. The key lies in committing to regular exercise, coupled with a well chosen diet program with a long term plan in view. 

If you are truly ready for the challenge to lose weight and put it off permanently, many people have found signing unto programs like the Beachbody 21 Day Fix Weight Loss Program to be the first step towards succeeding in this regard.

And if you are still struggling to lose weight despite doing "everything in the books" to lose weight, you may need to discuss with your doctor to find out what may be causing this.

Do Something Now

The truth is, we may never find the full answer to why some people obese and other are not. If you are obese or overweight though, you can do something about that. Start today.

Someone is medically said to be obese when he or she becomes 20% heavier than his or her ideal weight. Carrying more weight than is ideal for anyone overwhelms the body and causes a lot of medical problems .

Determine your obesity status now and act if you are overweight or obese. Use our resources to conquer obesity.

For more reasons why are people obese, see our page on causes of obesity. But. What do you think might be causing your obesity? Please join the discussion below and contribute your thoughts.

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