For the rest of people, genetic predisposition and environmental factors are a potent combination that leads to weight gain, says Schwartz.
Imagine that someone has a genetic predisposition to have a higher body weight, but they work a physically demanding job and have access to healthy, nutrient-rich foods—and the time and energy to cook. That person probably wouldn’t become obese just because of their genes. But we all know how rare that scenario is.
More often in the U.S., the genetic risk factor becomes an issue when environmental factors—including poverty, a sedentary lifestyle and stress—come into play. Americans who live in the poorest counties are most prone to obesity, research shows.
Solving the obesity problem
Nearly 40 percent of American adults have obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physicians and researchers who treat and study the disease hope that changing the perception of what causes obesity will help with the stigma people face—and help find treatments that actually work long-term, says Schur.
“The longer it stays about people’s personal failings, the less likely we are going to make progress in the kinds of treatments that really make a dent in the problem or that cure it,” she says.
Don’t throw in the towel
Despite how difficult it is to lose weight and keep it off, both Schur and Schwartz stress that eating well and exercising are important steps to take for your health, and that it is possible to be healthy while overweight.
“There are benefits of having a healthy lifestyle independent of how much weight you lose,” says Schwartz, citing lowered blood pressure, improved blood sugar levels, a lower dementia risk and a lower risk of heart disease.
Even if you don’t lose all the weight you had hoped, losing just 5 percent to 10 percent of your body weight (10 to 20 pounds for a 200 pound person) significantly improves your health if you have obesity, says Schur. In one study, people who lost 7 percent of their bodyweight through lifestyle changes lowered their risk of diabetes by 50 percent. The effect of the lifestyle changes to lower diabetes risk lasted over 10 years, even when the participants regained some of the weight.