6 Surprising Factors That Increase Your Obesity Risk

You knew overeating and inactivity can up your odds—but the list doesn't end there.

Medically reviewed in August 2019

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In June 2013, the American Medical Association declared obesity—defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher—as a disease requiring multiple interventions for treatment and prevention. These can include behavioral modifications, medications and possibly surgery.

The numbers are jarring. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third (36.5 percent) of US adults are obese, with more middle-aged (40.2 percent) and older adults (37 percent) being affected compared to younger adults (32.3 percent). On a global level, the World Health Organization states that obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

People who are obese have a higher risk of numerous conditions, such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Cardiovascular issues, including high cholesterol, lower levels of HDL [good] cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease
  • Multiple types of cancer, including that of the colon, rectum, endometrium, kidney, pancreas and gallbladder—as well as breast cancer in women who have been through menopause

You probably know that overeating and a lack of physical activity contribute to obesity—but there are other risk factors that may not be as apparent.

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Poor sleep

Obesity is connected to inadequate slumber. One review of sleep studies published in The American Journal of Human Biology detailed the links between inadequate sleep (defined as less than six hours) and increased BMI. Researchers found that a lack of shut-eye disrupted two hormones: ghrelin, which increases appetite, and leptin, which signals you're full. This disruption may lead you to eat more than you normally would, contributing to weight problems.

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While everyone gets anxious at times, ongoing mental and physiologic stress can cause the number on the scale to move in the wrong direction. A 2017 study published in the journal Obesity showed that chronic stress can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone that affects metabolism and helps the body manage stress. After taking a strand of hair that represented two months of hair growth from 2,527 adults aged 54 and older, scientists found that the volunteers with higher cortisol levels were also more likely to have a larger waist circumference, a higher weight and a higher BMI.

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Your viewing habits

Medical researchers from Harvard first reported on the link between TV watching and obesity in children in the mid-1980’s. Over the years, they have found that the more television shows viewed by an adult, the higher the likelihood of obesity. The results from one investigation showed that for every two hours of daily TV watching, women had a 23 percent increased risk of becoming obese, as well as 14 percent higher risk of developing diabetes.

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Heredity, but maybe not how you think

Genetics factors into obesity, though it's debated just how much of a role it plays. We do know that people with at least one obese parent are more likely to be obese themselves, though this can be due to a combination of heredity and family behaviors—you learn a lot of weight-related habits from your loved ones.

Genes themselves, however, are thought to affect how you store fat and process calories, as well as how and what you choose to eat. For example, a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that people with certain variations of the genes dubbed “obesity genes” may be inclined to eat an excessive amount of calories and opt for foods high in sugar and fat. These include FTO, or fat mass and obesity gene, and BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor gene. However, the study also pointed out that making a conscious effort to consume smaller portions of healthier foods can minimize this risk.

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Early life factors

Your likelihood of becoming obese may have started in infancy—or even in the womb. Various studies have connected each of the following circumstances to a higher risk of obesity:

  • A mother’s excessive weight gain during pregnancy
  • A mother’s high blood sugar levels or high blood pressure while pregnant
  • A mother who smokes when she's pregnant
  • High birth weight
  • Rapid weight gain during infancy
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Being bottle fed
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Where you live

We've all been there: You head to dinner with friends thinking you're going to order a healthy entree. After your pals have placed their orders, you ask for the mile-high hamburger, too. It’s well-known that your family and friends can influence your healthy (or unhealthy) habits, but a recent study suggests the place you call home may have the same effect.

Results from a 2018 study of 1,519 military families stationed at 38 areas across the United States suggest where you reside may contribute to your obesity risk. Families who lived in areas with a higher prevalence of obesity were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and a greater likelihood of being overweight or obese. The longer you live in an area, the study suggests, the more you'll resemble the local crowd.

Alternately, areas with lower rates of obesity may help lower a person’s risk for a high BMI and obesity.

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What you can do

As for the promising news, there are some surprising—but proven—strategies to help you combat obesity.

  • Get cooking. Avoiding added sugars and eating a balanced diet packed with fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains are proven to help keep obesity in check. And cooking at home can help. One 2017 study from The Ohio State University stated that adults who eat home-cooked meals—and dine without watching TV—are less likely to be obese.
  • Stand up. Regular physical activity has been shown to help combat extra pounds—and simply getting on your feet could be a good start. The American Cancer Society reported in 2015 that people who stand for at least one-quarter of each day are less likely to be obese.
  • Stop, ponder and jot. A small 2015 mental health survey found that only 1 in 10 people believed psychological wellbeing played a role in weight loss. But experts say that identifying your emotional attachment to food—which can be done by journaling your food intake, cravings and mood—may help alleviate stress and anxiety, and in turn, reduce the number on the scale.

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