How to Prevent Obesity

Two women working out together, smiling

 Cavan Images/Getty Images

In This Article
Table of Contents

You may be concerned about preventing obesity because of creeping weight gain, a family history of overweight, a related medical concern, or even just an overall concern about staying healthy. Whatever your reason, the goal is a worthy one. Preventing obesity helps you reduce your risk of a host of associated health issues, from heart disease to diabetes to some cancers and much more.

Like many chronic conditions, obesity is preventable with a healthy lifestyle—staying active, following a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep, and so on. The strategies for prevention are also those for treatment if you are already overweight or obese.

More and more research is being directed at obesity prevention given that the disease is a global health epidemic affecting more than 650 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Diet

Obesity can be prevented by following basic principles of healthy eating. Here are simple changes you can make to your eating habits that will help you lose weight and prevent obesity.

  • Eat five a day: Focus on eating at least five to seven servings of whole fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables constitute low-calorie foods. According to WHO, there is convincing evidence that eating fruits and vegetables decreases the risk of obesity. They contain higher amounts of nutrients and are associated with a lower risk for diabetes and insulin resistance. Their fiber content in particular helps you feel full with fewer calories, helping to prevent weight gain.
  • Avoid proceed foods: Highly processed foods, like white bread and many boxed snack foods, are a common source of empty calories, which tend to add up quickly. What's more, a 2019 study published in Cell Metabolism found, calorie for calorie, processed foods leads to weight gain while unprocessed foods promote weight loss.
  • Reduce sugar consumption: It is important to keep your intake of added sugars low. The American Heart Association recommends that the intake of added sugar not exceed 6 teaspoons daily for women and 9 teaspoons daily for men. Major sources of added sugar to avoid include sugary beverages, including sodas and energy or sports drinks; grain desserts like pies, cookies, and cakes; fruit drinks (which are seldom 100% fruit juice); candy; and dairy desserts like ice cream.
  • Limit artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners have been linked to obesity and diabetes. If you feel you must use a sweetener, opt for a small amount of honey, which is a natural alternative.
  • Skip saturated fats: A 2018 study published in the journal Biomedica shows that eating a foods high in saturated fat contributes to obesity. Focus instead on sources of healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), like avocados, olive oil, and tree nuts.
  • Sip wisely: Drink more water and eliminate all sugared beverages from your diet. Make water your go-to beverage; unsweetened tea and coffee are fine, too. Avoid energy drinks or sports drinks, which not only contain an overwhelming amount of added sugar, but have been shown (in the case of the former) to pose potential dangers to the cardiovascular system.
  • Cook at home: Studies that have looked at the frequency of home meal preparation have found that both men and women who prepared meals at home were less likely to gain weight. They were also less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
  • Try a plant-based diet: Eating a plant-based diet has been associated with greater overall health and much lower rates of obesity. To achieve this, fill your plate with whole vegetables and fruits at every meal. For snacks, eat unsalted nuts such as almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pistachios (all associated with heart health). Go easy (or eliminate altogether) protein sources that are heavy in saturated fats, such as red meat and dairy.

Exercise

Most national and international guidelines recommend that the average adult get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. That means at least 30 minutes per day, five days a week.

The best exercise for maintaining a healthy weight is brisk walking, according to a 2015 analysis of data from the Health Surveys from England.

Researchers found individuals who walk at a brisk or fast pace are more likely to have a lower weight, lower body-mass index (BMI), and lower waist circumference compared to individuals doing other activities. 

In addition, experts recommend keeping active throughout the day, whether by using a standing desk, taking frequent stretch breaks, or finding ways to work in walking meetings throughout your day.

Relax

Chronic stress raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol and leads to weight gain. It can also result in poor dietary choices, as cortisol and other stress hormones can increase “carb cravings” and make it difficult to exercise good judgment and willpower.

Look into the many healthy ways to beat stress and find what works best for you. Go for a daily walk, engage in regular yoga or tai chi, meditate, listen to music you love, get together with friends, or do whatever else relaxes you and brings you joy.

Studies show having a pet can lower blood pressure and pets, especially dogs, can increase your level of physical activity and can help you stave off weight gain.

Sleep

The role of sleep in overall well-being cannot be overstated. This extends to the goal of preventing obesity, too. Experts recommend getting seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

Studies have linked later bedtimes to weight gain over time. One study of nearly 3,500 adolescents who were followed between 1994 and 2009 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that a “later average bedtime during the workweek, in hours, from adolescence to adulthood was associated with an increase in BMI over time.”

In another study, researchers found that late bedtimes, and therefore less nightly sleep, for 4-year-old and 5-year-old children resulted in a greater likelihood of obesity over time. Specifically, the researchers found that the odds of becoming obese were higher for children who slept less than about 9.5 hours per night, as well as for children who went to bed at 9 p.m. or later.

A Word From Verywell

There are several possible contributors to obesity. The fact that the two biggest ones—diet and activity—are ones you can influence is good news. A healthy lifestyle that puts exercise and eating well at its center can also bring a myriad of other health benefits. And if you already have obesity or overweight, these strategies can also help you lose weight. Although it can be challenging at times, it is a journey well worth taking.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. Obesity and overweight. Published February 16, 2018.

  2. Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metab. 2019. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008

  3. American Heart Association. Sugar 101. Updated April 17, 2018.

  4. Alayón AN, Rivadeneira AP, Herrera C, Guzmán H, Arellano D, Echeverri I. Metabolic and inflammatory postprandial effect of a highly saturated fat meal and its relationship to abdominal obesity. Biomedica. 2018;38:93-100. doi:10.7705/biomedica.v38i0.3911

  5. Lichtenstein, A.H., Ludwig, D.S. 2010. Bring back home economics education. Journal of the American Medical Association. 303(18):1857-1858. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.592

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Guidelines for Americans 2nd Edition Executive Summary. Updated July 20, 2019

  7. Lordan G, Pakrashi D. Do All Activities "Weigh" Equally? How Different Physical Activities Differ as Predictors of Weight. Risk Anal. 2015;35(11):2069-86. doi:10.1111/risa.12417

  8. Coleman KJ, Rosenberg DE, Conway TL, et al. Physical activity, weight status, and neighborhood characteristics of dog walkers. Prev Med. 2008;47(3):309-12. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2008.05.007

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Much Sleep Do I Need? Updated March 2, 2017.

  10. Scharf RJ, Deboer MD. Sleep timing and longitudinal weight gain in 4- and 5-year-old children. Pediatr Obes. 2015;10(2):141-8. doi:10.1111/ijpo.229

Additional Reading