The risks of being an unhealthy weight
“The weight management approach is good because it gets you into a healthy lifestyle for the long term, unlike some other ideas about weight loss for women” says Dr Ann. “Focusing on fad diets usually means your weight can go up and down, and you can end up being overweight or underweight at different times, increasing your health risks.”
Worrying can drive unhealthy behavior
“Worrying a lot about your weight – whether you weigh too much or too little – can lead to dangerous eating behaviors, such as anorexia or binge eating,” says Dr Ann.
“So finding ways to stay at your healthy weight can reduce stress and anxiety, as well as your risk of developing an unhealthy relationship with food.”
Increased health risks from being overweight
“Being overweight puts women at greater risk of developing some serious health conditions,” says Dr. Ann. These conditions include:
- high blood pressure
- type 2 diabetes
- high cholesterol
- heart disease
- several cancers, including breast cancer
- Problems with getting or staying pregnant (fertility)
- breathing issues, such as sleep apnea
- too much visceral fat, also known as belly fat – which is linked to high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. Read about how to lose belly fat
Increased health risks from being underweight
“Being thin doesn’t always mean you’re healthy,” says Dr Ann. “If you’re underweight, you’re also at higher risk of some health conditions.” These include:
What stops women from being a healthy weight?
“On a very basic level, eating more calories than your body uses can cause you to put on weight, while using more calories than you take in means you’ll become underweight,” says Dr Ann. But life isn’t that simple!
“A lot of research is being done on the causes of obesity and being overweight and underweight, but we still don’t know exactly why one person will put on weight in a certain situation and another person won’t,” says Dr Ann. “But we do know that some factors make it more likely for us to gain weight.
“And just like being overweight, the causes of being underweight are complicated and can affect everyone differently.”
Knowing these sometimes surprising influences on your weight can help you decide what day-to-day weight management choices you can make to best help you.
Changing lifestyles and your weight
- it’s easier to eat more calories than ever before – portion sizes, packaged food sizes and even tableware have all gotten bigger, so we’re eating more food at every meal. Plus, we eat more processed and takeaway foods that contain high-calorie ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, so the amount of calories in a portion can be higher. And more people drink more alcoholic drinks socially and at home – alcohol is high in calories, too
- we’re moving around a lot less – so we’re not burning off the calories we take in. Most American adults are now sedentary for an average of 7.7 hours every day. We do fewer physical jobs where we’re using up more energy, and more jobs that mean we sit at desks, or spend time in cars on a long drive to work or places to spend leisure time. Plus, more time on computers and cell phones means more hours not being active – US research shows this time has increased since 2001
- stress and lack of quality sleep – “stressful life events such as bereavement or divorce can cause people to lose appetite or to comfort eat, for example,” says Dr Ann. “Being stressed can also interfere with sleep – and you’re more likely to eat more high-sugar foods to keep you awake if you’re tired”
Social influences for weight gain
- as more people become more overweight or obese, our idea of what a usual weight is changes – so it’s easier to be less aware that you’re not at a healthy weight. More people now consider their weight to be “about right” when they’re in fact overweight than in the 1980s
- if your friends and family are overweight, you’re more likely to be – because we influence each other’s choices of activity, food and alcohol levels. Research has shown that a person’s chances of becoming obese increases by 57% if a close friend is obese, 40% if a sibling is obese, and 37% if a spouse is obese
Your neighborhood can make you put on weight
Your environment can affect your weight. An ‘obesogenic environment’ is one that makes it more likely that you’ll eat more calories than you use, and can make it feel harder or more overwhelming to lose weight.
- urban environments are growing, which can mean you live in the middle of a city with very little green space for exercise
- you may be more likely to walk past lots of fast-food restaurants every day, while not having access to fresh fruit and vegetables close by
- if there’s a lot of crime, you may not feel safe exercising outside
- broken sidewalks or uncared-for parks may also put you off physical activity
- some studies have linked air pollution with obesity, so living near roads with heavy traffic may have an effect
Your genes or racial background can affect healthy weight
Your background and weight gain
“We know that genes can have an influence on people becoming overweight or obese, but the details are still being investigated,” says Dr Ann. Here’s what we know so far:
- one theory is that you may have some ‘energy-thrifty genes’, which helped your ancestors store energy during times when there wasn’t enough food. Today, you probably have enough food all year round, but energy-thrifty genes may mean you still store extra calories and put on weight
- obesity tends to run in families, but there isn’t a specific ‘fat gene’ that some families carry and others don’t. Women with black, African-American, Hispanic or Latina heritage are more likely to be overweight or obese. “This could be due to genetics,” says Dr Ann. “But it could also be down to cultural influences, such as certain foods, family traditions, views on body type, or where your community lives”
Your genes and being underweight
- if your parents, brothers or sisters are naturally slim, the chances are you will be, too
- eating disorders, such as anorexia, can also run in families. This may be genetic, but could also be due to family behaviors around food and/or body type, or a combination of these factors
Your age can affect your weight
As you get older, you may also struggle to have a healthy weight. Factors can include:
- muscle mass reduces with age, so you burn calories more slowly
- hormonal changes of the menopause can be associated with weight gain
- a less active lifestyle may mean you’re more likely to put on weight
- loss of appetite can mean you’re not eating enough calories
- taking certain medications can contribute to weight changes
Health conditions and your weight
“Some health conditions or the medicines you need to take to manage them can make you more likely to gain or lose weight,” says Dr Ann.
Health issues that mean you’re more likely to gain weight include:
Health issues that mean you’re more likely to lose weight include:
If you think you might have any of these issues, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Eating disorders such as anorexia, binge eating, bulimia or restrictive eating can cause weight gain and weight loss. “The causes are a complex mix of genes, biology, psychology (including self-esteem) and social/environmental factors,” says Dr Ann.
“If you have an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise (or think you might), speak to your doctor. Or reach out to a specialist charity – such as the National Eating Disorders Association (US) or Beat (UK).”
Learn more about eating disorders, including the signs and treatment options.