Why people become overweight
Everyone knows some people who can eat ice cream, cake, and whatever else they want and still not gain weight. At the other extreme are people who seem to gain weight no matter how little they eat.
Why? What are the causes of obesity? What allows one person to remain thin without effort but demands that another struggle to avoid gaining weight or regaining the pounds he or she has lost previously?
On a very simple level, your weight depends on the number of calories you consume, how many of those calories you store, and how many you burn up. But each of these factors is influenced by a combination of genes and environment.
Both can affect your physiology (such as how fast you burn calories) as well as your behavior (the types of foods you choose to eat, for instance). The interplay between all these factors begins at the moment of your conception and continues throughout your life.
The calorie equation
The balance of calories stored and burned depends on your genetic makeup, your level of physical activity, and your resting energy expenditure (the number of calories your body burns while at rest). If you consistently burn all of the calories that you consume in the course of a day, you will maintain your weight. If you consume more energy (calories) than you expend, you will gain weight.
Excess calories are stored throughout your body as fat. Your body stores this fat within specialized fat cells (adipose tissue) — either by enlarging fat cells, which are always present in the body, or by creating more of them. If you decrease your food intake and consume fewer calories than you burn up, or if you exercise more and burn up more calories, your body will reduce some of your fat stores. When this happens, fat cells shrink, along with your waistline.
To date, more than 400 different genes have been implicated in the causes of overweight or obesity, although only a handful appear to be major players. Genes contribute to the causes of obesity in many ways, by affecting appetite, satiety (the sense of fullness), metabolism, food cravings, body-fat distribution, and the tendency to use eating as a way to cope with stress.
The strength of the genetic influence on weight disorders varies quite a bit from person to person. Research suggests that for some people, genes account for just 25% of the predisposition to be overweight, while for others the genetic influence is as high as 70% to 80%. Having a rough idea of how large a role genes play in your weight may be helpful in terms of treating your weight problems.
These circumstances suggest that you have a genetic predisposition to be heavy, but it's not so great that you can't overcome it with some effort.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can assume that your genetic predisposition to obesity is modest if your weight is normal and doesn't increase even when you regularly indulge in high-calorie foods and rarely exercise.
People with only a moderate genetic predisposition to be overweight have a good chance of losing weight on their own by eating fewer calories and getting more vigorous exercise more often. These people are more likely to be able to maintain this lower weight.
Harvard Health Publishing