How to Prevent Obesity

Two women working out together, smiling

 Cavan Images/Getty Images

Like many chronic conditions, obesity is almost entirely preventable. And the good news is that it doesn’t take anything mysterious or complicated to prevent obesity; simply following a truly healthy lifestyle will usually do the trick.

As an added bonus, many, if not all, of the strategies for preventing obesity will also help you lose weight if you already have overweight or obesity.

Basic Principles of Healthy Eating

By following some very basic principles of healthy eating, you will prevent excess weight gain and obesity. You will also reduce your risk for other chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

The first of these principles is to focus on eating at least five to seven servings of whole fruits and vegetables every day. Fruits and vegetables constitute low-calorie foods. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that there is convincing evidence that eating fruits and vegetables decreases the risk for obesity. Compared to high-calorie foods such as processed foods that are high in sugar and fat, fruits and vegetables are less likely to contribute to obesity or overweight.

And, because they contain higher amounts of dietary fiber and other nutrients, they are associated with a lower risk for diabetes and insulin resistance. For the same reasons, they also make people feel full with fewer calories, thus helping to prevent weight gain.

Another principle of healthy eating that will go a long way toward preventing not only obesity but other chronic diseases such as cancer is to avoid highly refined and processed foods, such as cured or processed meats. Highly processed foods, like white bread and many boxed snack foods, are a common source of empty calories, and those calories can add up quickly.

Along the same lines, 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 percent fruit juice); candy; and dairy desserts like ice cream.

Also important to a healthy diet is to drink plenty of water and avoid sugary beverages like sodas and sports drinks.

Finally, be sure to avoid unhealthy fats (saturated fats) and focus instead on sources of healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), like avocados, olive oil, and tree nuts.

Getting Enough 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 for 5 days of the week.

Even better is to stay active throughout the day, whether by using a standing desk, taking frequent stretch breaks, or finding ways to work in walking meetings or other ways to walk throughout your day. Research has shown that staying physically active on a more continuous basis is much better for your overall health as well as for preventing obesity.

Wondering what form of exercise is best for preventing weight gain? According to a recent scientific analysis, there is one very easy form of exercise that will do all three of the above (help you lose weight, help you keep it off, and help prevent overweight and obesity): brisk walking.

Researchers who analyzed data from the annual English Health Surveys from 1999 to 2012 concluded that a simple, brisk, 30-minute walk five days per week was better for keeping off the pounds than similar time spent at the gym.

The researchers found that “individuals who walk at a brisk or fast pace are more likely to have a lower weight when compared to individuals doing other activities.”

The researchers also noted that “the association between physical activity and weight is stronger for females and individuals over the age of 50.”

The Role of Urban Design

Several studies have shown that the way our communities and urban cores are designed can play a major role in preventing obesity. Whether or not you live in a walkable neighborhood, for instance, will determine how easy it is for you to engage in the healthfully beneficial activity of regular walking.

“Neighborhood walkability” refers to how likely it is that you are able to walk to local shops, schools, and parks in your own neighborhood.

Can you walk to the grocery store from where you live, or do you have to get in your car to get to the store?

What are known as active modes of travel—walking or cycling, for example—have greater potential health benefits than driving a car and greater potential to prevent obesity.

In fact, a new urban design movement known as New Urbanism has developed with the goals of promoting healthier and more environmentally friendly cities, and recent data has shown that this movement can impact rates of overweight and obesity as well.

Beating Stress

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

Resist the urge to turn to alcohol, drugs, or other risky behaviors as a means of coping with stress. Instead, there are several healthy ways to beat stress.

Going for a daily walk is a great way to reduce stress, and, as noted above, brisk walking is also the best form of exercise for preventing obesity, so you get double benefits that way.

Another way to help relieve stress is to engage in regular yoga, tai chi, or meditation practice. Yet another stress-busting activity is to find and listen to music you love.

And don’t underestimate the role that your furry friend can play in the stress-busting arena. The ability of pets to soothe us is legendary; that is, after all, why we have a whole designation for therapy animals. Studies have even found that having a pet can lower blood pressure, and other studies have found that pets, especially dogs, increase your level of physical activity and can help you stave off weight gain.

Getting Enough Sleep

The role of sleep in overall well-being cannot be overstated. This extends to the goal of preventing obesity, too.

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.

How can you be sure to get an adequate amount of sleep? First, you must make it a priority in your daily schedule. Secondly, good sleep hygiene is very important, especially if you suffer from insomnia.

Other studies have found that teenagers or young adults who go to bed late on weeknights are more likely to gain weight over time.

In a study of nearly 3,500 adolescents who were followed between 1994 and 2009 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, researchers looked at how bedtimes affected body mass index (BMI) over time.

The study authors found that a “later average bedtime during the workweek, in hours, from adolescence to adulthood was associated with an increase in BMI over time.”

This finding does not appear to be limited to teenagers and young adults. 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 9:00 p.m. or later.

The takeaway here is to set a regular bedtime that is early enough to allow for seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep (more for children), and stick to it.

A Word From Verywell

The fact that obesity is a preventable condition is good news. By paying careful attention to basic daily habits and by sticking to a healthy lifestyle, you can avoid developing obesity. And if you already have obesity or overweight, switching to a healthier lifestyle will help you lose weight. Although it can be challenging at times, it is a journey well worth taking.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Asarnow LD, McGlinchey E, Harvey AG. Evidence for a possible link between bedtime and change in body mass index. Sleep. 2015;38:1523-7.
  • Coleman KJ, Rosenberg DE, Conway TL, Sallis JF, et al. Physical activity, weight status, and neighborhood characteristics of dog walkers. Prev Med. 2008;47:309-12.
  • 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.
  • Lordan G, Pakrashi D. Do all activities “weigh” equally? How different physical activities differ as predictors of weight. Risk Anal. 2015 May 20.
  • Scharf RJ, DeBoer MD. Sleep timing and longitudinal weight gain in 4- and 5-year-old children. Pediatr Obes. 2015;10:141-8.
  • World Health Organization. Information sheet: promoting fruit and vegetable consumption around the world.