5 Signs You May Be at Risk for Obesity

You Get Less Than 7 Hours of Sleep per Night

Close up of alarm clock, woman in background.
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In addition to preventing heart disease, stroke, depression, and other disorders, getting an adequate amount of high-quality sleep every night can prevent weight gain and obesity. What is the right amount? Most studies have shown that seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night are required to reap the health benefits of good sleep, including those related to preventing obesity.

What happens when we sleep? The body gets a chance to repair and restore itself. If it does not have enough time to do this over the long-term (chronically), then stress hormones and other inflammatory factors are released, as the body begins to react as if it were under chronic stress (which, without enough sleep, it is).

One of the main players in terms of stress hormones is cortisol, which is released in response to chronic stress.

Among many other of its influences on the body, cortisol causes glucose (sugar) to be released into the bloodstream so that it is more readily available to feed the brain. As an evolutionary response to chronic stress, this probably worked quite well, enabling a person under stress to respond with more brain power. However, in today’s world, an unwanted side effect of cortisol’s actions is the tendency for weight gain (makes sense that our ancestors would need to store or hold onto weight if they were truly under stress from a harsh environment). That weight gain, over time, can translate into obesity.

Indeed, studies have shown that lack of adequate sleep can result in overeating. And for those who are trying to lose weight, getting enough sleep (again, at least seven hours per night) increases the chance of success with weight loss.

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You Prepare a Meal at Home Less Than 7 Times per Week

Multigenerational family laughing at dinner
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We already know that we as a nation dine out too much and too often, and the consumption of fast food, in particular, has been linked to the obesity epidemic. Now researchers are discovering even more benefits of eating at home.

A study presented at the 2015 American Heart Association meeting in Orlando found that both women and men who prepared meals at home were less likely to gain weight.

They were also less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Specifically, the researchers, including lead author Geng Zong, PhD, research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, found that people who ate an average of 11 to 14 lunches and dinners prepared at home each week had a 13% lower risk of developing obesity and Type 2 diabetes as compared with those who ate zero to six home-prepared lunches and dinners.

Other studies have connected eating away from home, especially consumption of fast food, to overweight and obesity in children and young adults.

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You Eat a Southern-Style Diet

Fried chicken meal
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The American South, as a region overall, has also repeatedly been found to have the highest levels of obesity and diabetes, both of which are risk factors for stroke and cardiovascular disease.

In addition to issues with sedentary lifestyle and low walkability in urban and rural areas in the South, the Southern-style diet has a lot to do with the “Stroke Belt” title, too.

Researchers who gathered data from over 17,000 adult participants found that those who were the highest consumers of what was called the “Southern pattern, characterized by added fats, fried food, eggs, organ and processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages” had an extremely high risk of cardiovascular disease—including heart attack and stroke.

In fact, remarkably, those who consumed primarily a Southern diet were at higher risk of cardiovascular disease than those who ate mainly fast foods like pizza and Chinese take-out or who subsisted mainly on high-sugar diets.

This means that eating primarily fried foods, as is common in the South—think fried chicken, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, fried pickles; basically, fried everything—will take down your ticker faster and more often than just about any other style of eating, along with causing significant weight gain.

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You Commute to Work by Car Every Day

Driving or Carpooling to Work Could Result in Obesity. Mark Bowden/Vetta/Getty Images

Yet another factor has been found to be associated with overweight and obesity, and it is related to sedentary lifestyle: mode of transportation.

In one study that looked at self-reported commuting mode (categorized as private transport, public transport, and active transport) in over 15,000 residents of the United Kingdom, those who traveled to work using active and public modes of transport had significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than those who used private transport.

(Private transport may include driving one’s own car and car pooling, for example.)

Not only did those who walked or cycled all or part of the way to work--as one might do by necessity when using public transit--have lower BMIs, but they also had lower percentages of body fat compared to those who got to work using their own private cars. Both men and women were found to reap the benefits of a more active mode of transportation.

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Your Parents Have Obesity

three vintage framed family photographs on a desk
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While the other four risk factors above are lifestyle factors that can be changed, this one is out of your control, and should just make you more vigilant about your own risk and your own daily habits that are within your control.

A number of genetic links to obesity have now been discovered, with others to come. For example, scientists have discovered that the FTO gene may confer a tendency toward binge eating and development of obesity in adolescents.

Obesity has been found to be inherited in certain families. As the “Expert Committee Recommendations Regarding the Prevention, Assessment, and Treatment of Child and Adolescent Overweight and Obesity” has noted: “Twin studies have clearly demonstrated a genetic risk.” Other studies have found that the magnitude of parental obesity may be important, and have shown a link between morbid obesity in parents and subsequent obesity in their children; in other words, the children of morbidly obese parents are at higher risk of becoming obese themselves.


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Elder CR, Gullion CM, Funk KL, DeBar LL, et al. Impact of sleep, screen time, depression and stress on weight change in the intensive weight loss phase of the LIFE study. International Journal of Obesity. 2012;36:86-92.

Vikraman S, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Caloric intake from fast food among children and adolescents in the United States, 2011 – 2012. NCHS Data Brief No. 213, September 2015. Accessed online at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db213.htm on September 25, 2015.

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American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2015 Daily News. TriStar Publishing, Inc. November 9, 2015.

Shikany JM, Safford MM, Newby PK, et al. Southern dietary pattern is associated with hazard of acute coronary heart disease in the reasons for geographic and racial differences in stroke (REGARDS) study. Circulation. 2015 Aug 10. [Epub ahead of print]

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of self-reported obesity among U.S. adults by state and territory, BRFSS, 2013. Accessed online at http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/prevalence-maps.html on August 14, 2015.

Flint E, Cummins S, Sacker A. Associations between active commuting, body fat, and body mass index: population based, cross sectional study in the United Kingdom. BMJ 2014;349:g4887.

Micali N, Field AE, Treasure JL, Evans DM. Are obesity risk genes associated with binge eating in adolescents? Obesity (Silver Spring) 2015;23:1729-36.

Barlow SE, et al. Expert committee recommendations regarding the prevention, assessment, and treatment of child and adolescent overweight and obesity: summary report. Pediatrics 2007;120:S164-S192.  

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