5 Signs You May Be at Risk for Obesity

A number of causes for obesity have now been discovered. You might be surprised as to which ones are putting you at risk.


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 may help prevent weight gain and obesity. What is the right amount? According to the CDC, children age 6 to 12 need 9 to 12 hours per night; teenagers age 13 to 18 need 8 to 10 hours; adults age 18 to 60 years need 7 or more hours; those age 61 to 64 7 to 9 hours and those over 65 need 7 to 8 hours. Newborn through preschool ages need even more sleep.

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 brainpower and energy to escape danger. However, in today’s world, where many of our stresses are chronic and don't require physical exertion to address, 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. Sleep deprivation increases the hormone ghrelin, which increases your appetite, and conversely decreases the hormone leptin, which tells you you are full. And for those who are trying to lose weight, getting enough sleep increases the chance of success with weight loss.


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.


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 a 56% higher risk of coronary artery disease—including heart attack and stroke.

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—may take down your ticker faster and more often than just about any other style of eating, along with causing significant weight gain.


You Commute to Work by Car Every Day

Group of colleagues carpooling to work

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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 carpooling, 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.

The CDC recommends regular exercise as a way to maintain a healthy weight. Otherwise healthy people (with permission of their doctors) can build up to the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week or some mix of the two.

BMI is a dated, flawed measure. It does not take into account factors such as body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. 

Even though it is a biased measure, BMI is still widely used in the medical community because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze a person’s potential health status and outcomes


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.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. St-Onge M-P, O’Keeffe M, Roberts AL, RoyChoudhury A, Laferrère B. Short sleep duration, glucose dysregulation and hormonal regulation of appetite in men and women. Sleep. 2012;35(11):1503-1510. doi:10.5665/sleep.2198

  2. Centers for Disease Control. How much sleep do I need?

  3. Shlisky JD, Hartman TJ, Kris-Etherton PM, Rogers CJ, Sharkey NA, Nickols-Richardson SM. Partial sleep deprivation and energy balance in adults: an emerging issue for consideration by dietetics practitioners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(11):1785-1797. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2012.07.032

  4. American Journal of Managed Care. People who make meals at home have lower risk of diabetes, weight gain.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Caloric intake from fast food among children and adolescents in the United States.

  6. Shikany JM, Safford MM, Newby PK, Durant RW, Brown TM, Judd SE. 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;132(9):804-814. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.014421

  7. 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. doi:10.1136/bmj.g4887

  8. Micali N, Field AE, Treasure JL, Evans DM. Are obesity risk genes associated with binge eating in adolescents? Obesity. 2015;23:1729-36. doi:10.1002/oby.21147

  9. Barlow SE, Expert Committee. Expert committee recommendations regarding the prevention, assessment, and treatment of child and adolescent overweight and obesity: summary report. Pediatrics. 2007;120(Supplement 4):S164-S192. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-2329C

  10. Bahreynian M, Qorbani M, Khaniabadi BM, et al. Association between obesity and parental weight status in children and adolescents. J Clin Res Pediatr Endocrinol. 2017;9(2):111-117. doi:10.4274/jcrpe.3790

Additional Reading

By Yasmine S. Ali, MD, MSCI
Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.