Health and weight

Ideas about causes of weight problems

Young people talked to us about what they think caused them to become overweight and why it’s difficult to lose excess weight. Lots of possible causes were mentioned including;
  • Genetic predisposition, meaning that some people are born with a tendency to gain weight that comes from parents (obesity runs in families).
  • Eating behaviours, like eating too much or too little and unhealthy food choices.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle, for example spending too much time spent in front of TV and not exercising.
Many young people understood that a combination of all of these factors was probably responsible for their weight problems but some felt that their genes were the primary cause.
One common explanation given was that obesity ‘runs in the family’. These young people pointed out that they had ‘always’ been big and had had a greater tendency than others their age to gain weight. A few said that, despite eating healthy foods, they had been unable to lose weight.
On the other hand, many young people said that they had friends or brothers and sisters who did not put on weight in the way that they did, even though they ate more ‘junk’ food and didn’t exercise. This was particularly difficult to understand when it was a close family member like a sister; brought up in the same way and eating similar food
Although many people thought that obesity runs in families, not everyone agreed that their genes made them more likely to gain weight. Some people pointed out that people in the same family might have similar eating or exercise habits and that could cause family members to be of a similar weight. 
Most young people felt that there were many reasons for their weight problems including big meal portions, high calorie snacks and lack of exercise. Huw said that some people might be more prone than others to gaining weight but he understood that having big portions and snacking also caused his weight problem. 
Some young people thought a combination of eating unhealthy food and not exercising contributed to their weight problems. Sean said that when he lived in St. Vincent his weight was fine because he didn’t snack on sweets and chocolates and would walk to school every day. Now that he lives in the UK he has to rely on public transport to get to school because it is far from where he lives. Sean also said that fast food is cheaper and more easily available in this country. 
Most young people we talked to said that sometimes they eat more food than they need to when they feel sad, upset, anxious, stressed out, or even bored. This is also known as ‘comfort eating’ and was often mentioned as a way of coping with difficult or painful life experiences. These included being bullied, parents divorcing, death of a loved one, settling in a new country and sibling jealousy (see Low moods & depression).
Becca thought that most overweight people probably do not know why they overeat but she suggested that emotions played a big part. For Jess the problem started when she allowed food to dominate her whole life. She said that she’ll have a meal out when she is happy and eat ice cream when she’s unhappy.
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The role of parents and grandparents
Parents also discuss what they thought contributed to their  children’s weight. Ursula thought her daughter being overweight was the result of overeating, nothing else.  Some parents suggested that genes could have an influence on the amount people eat, but most thought this was unlikely. 
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Parents wondered whether their children’s eating habits were learned through upbringing and the parents’ own attitudes to food. Several said that they had used food to keep their children calm when they were young or that they did not control the amount of food their child was eating. A few said that grandparents encouraged the children to eat more than they needed to.
Medical conditions
Medical conditions were identified by two parents as the main cause for their children’s weight gain. Anne noticed that her daughter began to put on weight after she started having epileptic seizures. Charles’s son was born with a kidney condition and started to gain weight from a young age. Initially doctors thought that his weight would sort itself out as he grew.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated February 2012.


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