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6 Surprising Factors That Increase Your Obesity Risk

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

Medically reviewed in September 2022

Updated on September 29, 2022

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If you are obese, it means you carry more body fat than is considered to be healthy for your height. Many healthcare providers use body mass index (BMI) to screen for obesity. Someone who is obese has a BMI of 30 or higher.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 41.9 percent of people in the United States are obese. More middle-aged (44.3 percent) and older adults (41.5 percent) are affected compared to younger adults (39.8 percent).

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

In June 2013, the American Medical Association declared obesity to be a disease requiring multiple interventions for treatment and prevention. These can include behavioral modifications, medications, and possibly surgery.

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

Not getting enough rest? That could be an issue, since obesity is connected to inadequate sleep. People who slept less than 7 hours per night were more likely to be obese than those who slept more, according to a 2018 study published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise. Researchers found that a lack of shut-eye was linked to a disruption of 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 issues.

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Stress

While everyone gets anxious at times, ongoing mental and physiologic stress may lead to weight gain. It can do this by triggering obesity-promoting behavior such as overeating foods high in fat, calories, or sugar. It may also cause people to stay up later and forgo exercise.

Chronic stress can also affect your body chemistry in a way that contributes to obesity. For example, a 2017 study published in the journal Obesity showed that chronic stress could 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.

Excess TV time can coincide with other behaviors that contribute to obesity, as well, such as low physical activity and poor sleep. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggested as much. It also found that participants who got the least sleep, had the lowest levels of physical activity, and watched the most television tended to have the highest BMIs.

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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 and what you choose to eat, as well as how you process calories and store fat. For example, a 2019 study published in Nature Communications found that your genes affect how fat is stored in the area around your abdomen. Women were more likely to have fat on their hips and legs while men had more fat in their gut.

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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, planning to order a healthy entree. After your pals have placed their orders, you ask for the deluxe hamburger platter, too. 

It’s no secret that your family and friends can influence your habits, but one 2018 study in JAMA Pediatrics suggests your location may have the same effect. Researchers analyzed 1,519 military families stationed across the United States and found that where participants resided contributed to 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 suggested, the more you'll resemble the locals. 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

There are some surprising—but proven—strategies to help you address 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 found that adult participants who ate home-cooked meals—and dined without watching TV—were 26 percent less likely to be obese.
  • Stand up. Regular physical activity has been shown to help combat extra pounds. Simply getting on your feet and moving around for a few minutes could be a good start.
  • Stop, ponder, and jot. 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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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Defining Adult Overweight & Obesity. Page last reviewed: June 3, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adult Obesity Facts. Page last reviewed: May 17, 2022.
Cooper CB, Neufeld EV, et al. Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: a brief narrative review. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. 2018;4(1), e000392.
Jackson SE, Kirschbaum C, & Steptoe A. Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population‐based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years. Obesity. 2017;25(3), 539-544.
Tomiyama AJ. Stress and obesity. Annual Reviews Psychology. 2019;70(1), 703-718.
Harvard T.H. Chan. Television Watching and “Sit Time”. Accessed August 10, 2022.
Cassidy S, Chau JY, et al. Low physical activity, high television viewing and poor sleep duration cluster in overweight and obese adults; a cross-sectional study of 398,984 participants from the UK Biobank. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Volume 14, Article number: 57 (2017).
Bahreynian M, Qorbani M, et al. Association between obesity and parental weight status in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Research in Pediatric Endocrinology. 2017; 9(2), 111.
Rask-Andersen M, Karlsson T, Ek WE. Genome-wide association study of body fat distribution identifies adiposity loci and sex-specific genetic effects. Nature Communications. 2019;10(1), 1-10.
Zou Z, Yang Z, et al. Association of high birth weight with overweight and obesity in Chinese students aged 6–18 years: a national, cross-sectional study in China. BMJ Open. 2019;9(5), e024532.
Arisaka O, Ichikawa G, S, et al. Childhood obesity: rapid weight gain in early childhood and subsequent cardiometabolic risk. Clinical Pediatric Endocrinology. 2020;29(4), 135-142.
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Huang J, Zhang Z, et al. Early feeding of larger volumes of formula milk is associated with greater body weight or overweight in later infancy. Nutrition Journal. 2018;17(1), 1-9.
AARP. Are Your Friends Making You Fat? Page last reviewed: December 12, 2019.
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