Foods That Cause Obesity: What Causes Dangerous Weight Gain (and What You Can Do About It)

Many health experts have started calling obesity an epidemic or health crisis in the United States.

It increases a person’s disease risk and isn’t an easy condition to treat. Over 93 million Americans were classified as obese in 2015-2016 alone. If every person developed it for the same reason, there might be an easier cure.

We do know one thing for sure, though: Diet and exercise play a role in its development. What you eat — and how much — could be making you sicker than you realize.

What makes some people gain weight to such an extreme that it becomes dangerous? Are there specific foods that contribute to obesity more than others? Here’s what we know — and what you can do with the information we have so far.

What causes obesity?

Junk food

Junk food | Mukhina1/Getty Images

Is food the only cause of obesity? Technically, no. People who are classified as overweight or obese are more likely to consume large quantities of food regularly and remain physically inactive, but that alone doesn’t put their health at risk.

You’re more likely to develop obesity if you:

  • Follow unhealthy diet and exercise habits
  • Have a family history of overweight or obesity
  • Take certain medications, such as antidepressants
  • Live with a health condition such as polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Grew up in an environment that discouraged healthy lifestyle habits.

It’s the combination of several factors that lead many people to gain dangerous amounts of weight without realizing it — until it becomes a problem. And the more weight you gain, it seems, the harder it is to lose it.

Food may not be all to blame. But what you eat on a daily basis can say a lot about your future health.

Foods that cause weight gain — and why

Following an “unhealthy diet” doesn’t just mean you eat unhealthy foods. It’s those who don’t provide their bodies with adequate nutrition that often develop chronic health conditions such as obesity. This also refers to increased energy intake — eating too many calories for your body to use as fuel.

Foods that commonly contribute to excessive weight gain — especially without supplemental exercise — include:

  • Foods and beverages high in added sugar and calories
  • Foods that are low in protein and fiber
  • Foods made with refined carbohydrates, such as white bread

What health experts stress most in their reviews of research is the importance of portion control. The fact that eating too much can make you gain weight seems obvious. But many people don’t consider how much they’re eating when choosing the foods they consume.

The foods listed above tend to be high in calories and low in nutrition. Excessive calorie intake, regardless of where your calories are coming from, is more likely to cause weight gain when you aren’t expending that energy on a regular basis.

But that’s not to say the composition of the foods you’re eating doesn’t matter. It’s much better to eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables than it is to eat potato chips and fried chicken. A balanced diet that includes fiber and protein — and one made up of fewer overall calories — really can make a difference.

That’s often easier said than done, though. People who have more weight to lose are at a disadvantage — and there’s science to prove it.

Can you be obese and healthy?

Is it possible to be “fat and fit”? In short, you can be skinny and unhealthy, overweight and feeling just fine. Weight isn’t the only thing that determines how healthy you are (or aren’t). But that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate your body by treating it well.

There is nothing wrong with body positivity. A person shouldn’t be judged by their size. The problem is, they often are — even at the doctor’s office. And studies have shown that “weight stigma” as it’s called actually discourages people from taking steps toward better health.

Doctors who directly or indirectly fat-shame their patients are contributing to a public health crisis. But patients also have to keep in mind that just because you aren’t experiencing negative symptoms of something like obesity doesn’t mean you’re going to be OK.

More recent research on weight and disease risk found that people who were overweight but didn’t have complications like diabetes or high blood pressure were more likely to develop heart disease. Health conditions that endanger your health “silently” are some of the most deadly.

So to answer the above question: Probably not. Obesity puts so much added stress on the body that it would be irresponsible to say it isn’t dangerous.

Thankfully, it’s never too late to do something about it.

How to lose weight when you have a lot to lose

Weight scale

Weight scale | Ensuria/Getty Images

Losing weight is hard, even for people who don’t have a medical reason to do so. Research has actually found that people living with obesity have a harder time losing weight — biologically — than everyone else. So I’m not here to tell you that it’s an easy road. That doesn’t mean it can’t be worth it.

You can eat and avoid all the “right” foods, do all the right exercises, and still fail to see results. But what’s most important is that you keep trying proven methods until some combination of things finally clicks.

If you’re looking for an affordable weight loss program to hold you accountable at home, most doctors say Weight Watchers is one of the most reliable ways to lose weight.

However, if you’re also living with other medical conditions that make diet and exercise more complicated for you, you might need individualized, professional help. If your insurance allows it, consider giving it a chance. There’s no shame in asking for assistance. Not everyone in medicine is out to judge you. Most of them really want to help.

If you’ve tried everything on your own and nothing seems to be working, talk with your doctor. They may be able to refer you to a medical-based program that employs licensed dietitians and psychiatrists trained to help you make positive changes in your life sooner rather than later through a variety of proven strategies.