The Biggest Obesity Risk Factors
We all know that eating too much junk food and not exercising enough can lead to putting on excess pounds. However, some other surprising everyday habits may also be to blame.
By Kristen Stewart
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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It’s no secret we’re experiencing an obesity epidemic. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one-third of U.S. adults are overweight and another one-third are obese. That leaves only about one in three Americans in the normal healthy-weight range.
Many of us are fighting the battle of the bulge. We try to avoid foods high in fat and sugar and exercise more to lose or maintain weight. But researchers are discovering that there’s more to the story.
While what we eat and how active we are certainly affect our size, a recent study found that there are other factors at work as well, including how much we sleep, how much vitamin D we get, and how much we engage in mindless eating.
Obesity Risk: Not Enough Sleep
Whether work and family commitments are keeping us up at night, or we’re plugged into entertainment like TV, video games, and surfing the Internet, we can come up with a hundred things to do besides sleep. By doing so, however, we may be increasing our obesity risk.
Even though sleep is the most sedentary activity of all and burns the least amount of calories - one minute of sleep burns just one calorie on average - yet researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Canada recently found that not getting enough sleep can play a big role in weight gain.
“For some people, lack of sleep can be the main problem, and a narrow focus on diet and exercise will not be enough to solve it,” says Jean-Philippe Chaput, PhD, junior research scientist in the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Ottawa, Ont., Canada and an author of the study.
Related: The Link Between Sleep and Weight
Several factors may explain this finding. For one, the less a person sleeps, the more time one has for doing other things like eating. Also, feeling tired and fatigued can discourage us from wanting to hit the gym. There also seems to be a physiological component : Less sleep wreaks havoc on hormones involved in appetite control. Restricting sleep causes a decrease in the hormone leptin, which helps the brain recognize that the stomach is full. Additionally, lack of sleep increases the release of the hormone ghrelin, an appetite stimulant that makes us want to eat more.
To reduce the risk of weight gain brought on by lack of sleep, Chaput recommends adults get seven to eight hours of sleep a day, while school-aged children should get 10 to 11 hours.
Obesity Risk: Lack of Calcium
Dairy products may be good for more than our teeth and bones — they may just help keep our obesity risk in check.
“Dietary calcium has the capacity to bind with fat in the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in an increased fecal fat excretion,” Chaput explains. “Futhermore, high intake of dairy and calcium are good for appetite control.”
Most adults should aim for 1,000 mg of calcium per day - ideally through diet, rather than supplements - to get the extra benefits of protein and other bioactive ingredients found in foods.
Keep in mind that the body can't reap the benefits of calcium without enough vitamin D. Fortified dairy products, egg yolks, and fish such as salmon and tuna are excellent sources of vitamin D.
Related: Are You an Emotional Eater?
Obesity Risk: Mindless Eating
It’s not only important to be conscious of what we eat – such as cutting out junk food to help keep the number on the scale from creeping up - but also what we’re doing when we’re eating. “Modern sedentary activities like watching TV and playing video games not only burn few calories, they also increase food intake in the absence of hunger,” says Chaput.
Try to identify situations when unnecessary eating can occur. Do you eat too much while watching sports on TV with friends? Or at parties and other social events? Or while surfing the Internet? Once you figure out your biggest problem situations, try to make a conscious effort to limit your intake or avoid food altogether during these times.
Excess pounds and obesity can be caused by a combination of numerous factors. The best defense against a high obesity risk is a healthy lifestyle in general — namely, eating the right foods in the right quantities, staying active, getting a good night’s sleep, and having the proper amount of vitamins and minerals, including calcium and vitamin D.
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