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10.3: Factors Contributing to Overweight and Obesity

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    Environmental Factors

    The overall environment in which many Americans now live, work, learn, and play has contributed to the obesity epidemic. Ultimately, individuals choose the type and amount of food they eat and how physically active they are. However, choices are often limited by what is available in a person’s environment, including stores, restaurants, schools, and worksites. Environment affects both sides of the calorie balance equation—it can promote over-consumption of calories and discourage physical activity and calorie expenditure. The food supply has changed dramatically over the past 40 years. Foods available for consumption increased in all major food categories from 1970 to 2008. Average daily calories available per person in the marketplace increased approximately 600 calories, with the greatest increases in the availability of added fats and oils, grains, milk and milk products, and caloric sweeteners. Many portion sizes offered for sale also have increased. Research has shown that when larger portion sizes are served, people tend to consume more calories. In addition, strong evidence shows that portion size is associated with body weight, such that being served and consuming smaller portions is associated with weight loss.

    Studies examining the relationship between the food environment and BMI have found that communities with a larger number of fast food or quick-service restaurants tend to have higher BMIs. Since the 1970s, the number of fast food restaurants has more than doubled. Further, the proportion of daily calorie intake from foods eaten away from home has increased, and evidence shows that children, adolescents, and adults who eat out, particularly at fast food restaurants, are at increased risk of weight gain, overweight, and obesity. The strongest association between fast food consumption and obesity is when one or more fast food meals are consumed per week. As a result of the changing food environment, individuals need to deliberately make food choices, both at home and away from home, that are nutrient dense, low in calories, and appropriate in portion size.

    On the other side of the calorie balance equation, many Americans spend most of their waking hours engaged in sedentary behaviors, making it difficult for them to expend enough calories to maintain calorie balance. Many home, school, work, and community environments do not facilitate a physically active lifestyle. For example, the lack of sidewalks or parks and concerns for safety when outdoors can reduce the ability of individuals to be physically active.

    Also, over the past several decades, transportation and technological advances have meant that people now expend fewer calories to perform tasks of everyday life. Consequently, many people today need to make a special effort to be physically active during leisure time to meet physical activity needs. Unfortunately, levels of leisure-time physical activity are low. Approximately one-third of American adults report that they participate in leisure-time physical activity on a regular basis, one-third participate in some leisure-time physical activity, and one-third are considered inactive. Participation in physical activity also declines with age. For example, in national surveys using physical activity monitors, 42 percent of children ages 6 to 11 years participate in 60 minutes of physical activity each day, whereas only 8 percent of adolescents achieve this goal. Less than 5 percent of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day, with slightly more meeting the recommended weekly goal of at least 150 minutes.

    Genetic Influences

    Obesity is a complex multifactorial chronic disease developing from interactive influences of numerous factors—social, behavioral, physiological, metabolic, cellular, and molecular.

    Genetic influences are difficult to explain and identification of the genes is not easily achieved through studies. Furthermore, whatever the influence the genotype has on the etiology of obesity, it is generally attenuated or exacerbated by nongenetic factors. A large number of twin, adoption, and family studies have explored the level of heritability of obesity; that is, the fraction of the population variation in a trait (e.g., BMI) that can be explained by genetic transmission. Recent studies of individuals with a wide range of BMIs, together with information obtained on their parents, siblings, and spouses, suggest that about 25 to 40 percent of the individual differences in body mass or body fat may depend on genetic factors. However, studies with identical twins reared apart suggest that the genetic contribution to BMI may be higher, i.e., about 70 percent.

    Hormonal Influences

    From the research currently available, several genes seem to have the capacity to cause obesity or to increase the likelihood of becoming obese. Leptin and ghrelin are two hormones that have been recognized to have a major influence on energy balance. Leptin is a mediator of long-term regulation of energy balance, suppressing food intake and thereby inducing weight loss. Ghrelin on the other hand is a fast-acting hormone, seemingly playing a role in meal initiation. As a growing number of people suffer from obesity, understanding the mechanisms by which various hormones and neurotransmitters have influence on energy balance has been a subject of intensive research. In obese subjects the circulating level of the anorexigenic hormone leptin is increased, whereas surprisingly, the level of the orexigenic hormone ghrelin is decreased. It is now established that obese patients are leptin-resistant. However, the manner in which both the leptin and ghrelin systems contribute to the development or maintenance of obesity is as of yet not clear.

    Metabolic Rates

    Numerous aspects of your metabolism play a role in determining whether you lose, gain, or maintain your weight. We all have a distinctive ability to burn energy called basal metabolic rate (BMR). BMR is the minimal rate of energy expenditure the body uses in order to survive and main vital functions in the body. Resting metabolic rate (RMR) takes into account BMR and any additional energy used during activities of daily living such as eating, digestion, sitting, or standing. Exercise metabolic rate (EMR) refers to the energy that is expended during exercise/physical activity. A person’s metabolic rates can change throughout one’s lifespan and can be affected by puberty, hormonal changes, age, physical activity. Unfortunately, our metabolism naturally slows down as we age making it much more difficult to lose weight at middle age. A slower metabolism, combined with age related muscle loss known as sarcopenia, family obligations, and long work hours all contribute to gradual weight gain in middle-aged adults.

    Current Dietary Intake

    The current dietary intake of Americans has contributed to the obesity epidemic. Many children and adults have a usual calorie intake that exceeds their daily needs, and they are not physically active enough to compensate for these intakes. The combination sets them on a track to gain weight. On the basis of national survey data, the average calorie intake among women and men older than age 19 years are estimated to be 1,785 and 2,640 calories per day, respectively. While these estimates do not appear to be excessive, the numbers are difficult to interpret because survey respondents, especially individuals who are overweight or obese, often underreport dietary intake. Well-controlled studies suggest that the actual number of calories consumed may be higher than these estimates.

    Sources of Calories

    The Table below provides the top sources of calories among Americans ages 2 years and older. The table reveals some expected differences in intake between younger (ages 2 to 18 years) and adult (ages 19 years and older) Americans. For example, alcoholic beverages are a major calorie source for adults, while fluid milk provides a greater contribution to calorie intake for children and adolescents. Further, while not shown in the table, there is additional variability in calorie sources among children, adolescents, and adults of different ages. For example, sugar-sweetened beverages and pizza are greater calorie contributors for those ages 9 to 18 years than for younger children. Also, dairy desserts and ready-to-eat cereals provide a greater contribution to calorie intake for those ages 71 years and older than they do among younger adults.

    Although some of the top calorie sources by category are important sources of essential nutrients, others provide calories with few essential nutrients. Many of the foods and beverages most often consumed within these top categories are in forms high in solid fats and/or added sugars, thereby contributing excess calories to the diet. For example, many grain-based desserts are high in added sugars and solid fats, while many chicken dishes are both breaded and fried, which adds a substantial number of calories to the chicken.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) Top 25 Sources of Calories Among Americans Ages 2 Years and Older, NHANES 2005-2006 a.


    overall, ages 2+ yrs

    (Mean kcal/d; total daily calories = 2,157)

    children and adolescents, ages 2–18 yrs

    (Mean kcal/d; total daily calories = 2,027)

    adults and older adults, ages 19+ yrs

    (Mean kcal/d; total daily calories = 2,199)

    1 Grain-based dessertsb (138 kcal) Grain-based dessertsb (138 kcal) Grain-based dessertsb (138 kcal)
    2 Yeast breadsc (129 kcal) Pizza (136 kcal) Yeast breadsc (134 kcal)
    3 Chicken and chicken mixed dishesd (121 kcal) Soda/energy/sports drinks (118 kcal)e Chicken and chicken mixed dishesd (123 kcal)
    4 Soda/energy/sports drinkse (114 kcal) Yeast breadsc (114 kcal) Soda/energy/sports drinkse (112 kcal)
    5 Pizza (98 kcal) Chicken and chicken mixed dishes (113 kcal) Alcoholic beverages (106 kcal)
    6 Alcoholic beverages (82 kcal) Pasta and pasta dishesf (91 kcal) Pizza (86 kcal)
    7 Pasta and pasta dishesf (81 kcal) Reduced fat milk (86 kcal) Tortillas, burritos, tacosg (85 kcal)
    8 Tortillas, burritos, tacosg (80 kcal) Dairy dessertsi (76 kcal) Pasta and pasta dishesf (78 kcal)
    9 Beef and beef mixed dishesh (64 kcal) Potato/corn/other chips (70 kcal) Beef and beef mixed dishesh (71 kcal)
    10 Dairy dessertsi (62 kcal) Ready-to eat cereals (65 kcal) Dairy dessertsi (58 kcal)
    11 Potato/corn/other chips (56 kcal) Tortillas, burritos, tacosg (63 kcal) Burgers (53 kcal)
    12 Burgers (53 kcal) Whole milk (60 kcal) Regular cheese (51 kcal)
    13 Reduced fat milk (51 kcal) Candy (56 kcal) Potato/corn/other chips (51 kcal)
    14 Regular cheese (49 kcal) Fruit drinksm (55 kcal) Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (49 kcal)
    15 Ready-to-eat cereals (49 kcals) Burgers (55 kcal) Nuts/seeds and nut/seed mixed dishesj(47 kcal)
    16 Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (49 kcal) Fried white potatoes (52 kcal) Fried white potatoes (46 kcal)
    17 Fried white potatoes (48 kcal) Sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (47 kcal) Ready-to-eat cereals (44 kcal)
    18 Candy (47 kcal) Regular cheese (43 kcal) Candy (44 kcal)
    19 Nuts/seeds and nut/seed mixed dishesj (42 kcal) Beef and beef mixed dishesh (43 kcal) Eggs and egg mixed dishesk (42 kcal)
    20 Eggs and egg mixed dishesk (39 kcal) 100% fruit juice, not orange/grapefruit (35 kcal) Rice and rice mixed dishesl (41 kcal)
    21 Rice and rice mixed dishesl (36 kcal) Eggs and egg mixed dishesk (30 kcal) Reduced fat milk (39 kcal)
    22 Fruit drinkm (36 kcal) Pancakes, waffles, and French Toast (29 kcal) Quickbreadsn (36 kcal)
    23 Whole milk (33 kcal) Crackers (28 kcal) Other fish and fish mixed disheso (30 kcal)
    24 Quickbreadsn (32 kcal) Nuts/seeds and nut/seed mixed dishesj(27 kcal) Fruit drinksm (29 kcal)
    25 Cold cuts (27 kcal) Cold cuts (24 kcal) Salad dressing (29 kcal)
    1. Data are drawn from analyses of usual dietary intakes conducted by the National Cancer Institute. Foods and beverages consumed were divided into 97 categories and ranked according to calorie contribution to the diet. Table shows each food category and its mean calorie contribution for each age group. Additional information on calorie contribution by age, gender, and race/ethnicity is available at
    2. Includes cake, cookies, pie, cobbler, sweet rolls, pastries, and donuts.
    3. Includes white bread or rolls, mixed-grain bread, flavored bread, whole- wheat bread, and bagels.
    4. Includes fried or baked chicken parts and chicken strips/patties, chicken stir-fries, chicken casseroles, chicken sandwiches, chicken salads, stewed chicken, and other chicken mixed dishes.
    5. Sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened bottled water including vitamin water.
    6. Includes macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, other pasta with or without sauces, filled pasta (e.g., lasagna and ravioli), and noodles.
    7. Also includes nachos, Quesadilla, and other Mexican mixed dishes.
    8. Includes steak, meatloaf, beef with noodles, and beef stew.
    9. Includes ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, milk shakes, and pudding.
    10. Includes peanut butter, peanuts, and mixed nuts.
    11. Includes scrambled eggs, omelets, fried eggs, egg breakfast sandwiches/ biscuits, boiled and poached eggs, egg salad, deviled eggs, quiche, and egg substitutes.
    12. Includes white rice, Spanish rice, and fried rice.
    13. Includes fruitflavored drinks, fruit juice drinks, and fruit punch.
    14. Includes muffins, biscuits, and cornbread.
    15. Fish other than tuna or shrimp.

    Source: National Cancer Institute. Food sources of energy among U.S. population, 2005-2006. Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods. Control and Population Sciences. National Cancer Institute; 2010. riskfactor. urces/. Updated May 21, 2010. Accessed May 21, 2010.

    This page titled 10.3: Factors Contributing to Overweight and Obesity is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Garrett Rieck & Justin Lundin.