Health and weight (young people)

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.

Sami says that despite trying most diets in an attempt to lose weight, she has come to accept the...

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Sex: Female
I realise you know I’m quite chunky all over but that’s what makes me, me. And no matter I’ve been on every single diet known to man, for the entirety of my life trying to make myself slim, but to be honest that just makes me really unhappy ‘cos I’m always calorie counting, always looking at packets, and everybody else is just there enjoying, they can eat as many burgers as they like, I only have to look at a slice of cake or a burger, and I put on about a stone. It’s, [laughs] it’s just the way that our family works, everyone in our family is large, I just have to accept that, you know, the amount of fruit and veg I eat is also important, I suppose, but no matter what I eat I’m always me, and I know I’ve got a big tummy and a huge arse, but, you know, that’s me, and somebody loves me for it so, I don’t have to change for anyone now.
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

Ella thinks that the difference between her and her sister'’s weight must be due to their metabolisms.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
You think it’s an issue maybe about your metabolism, maybe that’s what caused it…?
Well I can’t think of any other reason than that for if I eat so much less than for instance, my sister, we both do no exercise, and , she’s always been a very thin child and I’ve always been a bigger child. I mean I was, I was more interested in eating when I was younger than her, I loved my food, so did my brother. She wasn’t really interested, she just, it was sort of more of a chore for her, but now, I think she loves it more than me, and I can’t see any other reason why, why there’s that difference, other than perhaps metabolism.
I mean I’m not, I’m not saying that it’s only my metabolism, I just happened to learn that because perhaps I have a slower metabolism than other people, that I’ve had to eat, I’ve had to eat differently and eat less. Which I wasn’t something I wanted to realise before, so I mean obviously it’s just if you, it’s simple that if you eat more calories than you burn off, you put on weight. Yeah.
Some of the other factors that people think might be important are things like, maybe you have a genetic predisposition, or…?
Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I’ve got a, yeah I think that’s definitely an issue for some people. I can’t say it is for me. My Mum was the same size as my sister until she had children and then slightly bigger but she’s very, very slim still for a woman of her age. My Dad was very, very thin until he was in, you know, in his adult years, and now I think he struggles with it a bit too. But I think that I certainly don’t have a genetic disposition towards it, but I think a lot of people do, but then I guess that it’s always the question about whether is it genetics or is it the, the environment that you’ve been raised in, and the environment that you are in. And yeah, I don’t really know.
And one of the other theories is that, maybe it’s something to do with, what your Mum did when she was pregnant with you, and the kind of things that she fed you when you were a baby, like a very small baby. And that sort of thing, I mean what do you think…?
Not particularly, ‘cos I mean I was her third child, and she did everything the same with my pregnancy as she did with my brother and sister’s, and there’s not, I can’t see anything that would explain the variance, and again she treated us, we were all quite young, I mean my brother is six years older than me and my sister’s four years older than me, so she had three kids under the age of 6 at the same time, and she did everything the same for us, so our packed lunch was always the same and so on. Things like that. So I don’t think that I was treated any differently when I was, when I was younger, than my sister was.
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. 

Rachel thinks there is a difference between big and obese people and says that the causes are different.

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Sex: Female
I think there is some people who are meant to be big, like there’s not, there’s people that look fat if you like and aren’t actually fat they are just like meant to be as big as they are, if they, if they went skinny they’d look atrocious kind of thing and that girl in my class she did everything to eat healthy and she just didn’t lose weight I think she was just meant to be that kind of weight kind of thing, she was a big baby, she was a big girl, she was just like big right the way through kind of thing she wasn’t meant to be a skinny person so not all people that you look at are fat, some of them are obese but some of them are just meant to be like that.
So are you saying there is a difference between sort of people that are meant to be kind of bigger?
and then…
And then people who are obese.
people who are…
Because obesity is brought on yourself I think, obesity is like when you’ve got eating, bad eating habits and you don’t exercise whereas just some big people just, maybe they do eat a bit more than say you and I but they just like, they are meant to be like quite big because they look kind of ill if they didn’t look that as big as they are.
So in those two groups of people then does, there’s like different causes for them being bigger?
Yeah, yeah.
Okay, so with the obese, obesity group they, it’s because they are?
Less active and they don’t really tend to watch what they eat.
Okay and then what about with the other group then?
The other group, I would say they weren’t active, they wouldn’t be as [noise] active as say, I’m just using myself as an example, but they would sort of, the wouldn’t be as active and they wouldn’t watch what they eat as much as other people but they do seem to do more about it than obese people.And I think obesity has got, there’s not always but sort of quite a few times there is a reason behind obesity like comfort eating and stuff like. 
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Holly says that all the women in her family (except her sister) are big and would love to blame her genes for her size.

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Sex: Female
I don’t know, I think there, there are some sort of genetic implications, I mean all the women in my family have been large, but then again my sister isn’t, so, and then again it’s confidence. Some people have different eating habits that sometimes it’s the fact that people have high metabolisms that makes them sort of skinny and so on. Because it’s different with people, but I suppose they just have the situations where, where they’re living and, and if they, if they like chocolate then I’m sure they’d sit around and eat it all day. I don’t know, I think it’s, sometimes it’s an emotional thing where, you know, they comfort eat, and sometimes it’s just how they’re made. I don’t know.
And how about for you? What do you think it is in your case?
I think it’s a bit of both. I would love to say it’s all to do with genetics and I have nothing to do with it, but I know that what I do isn’t particularly healthy and therefore it’s due to me as well. So I mean I can still be the odd one out in the family and be the skinny one, but because I prefer to go and eat chocolate, and have a couple of... for a treat, then I do that, so I think it’s for me it’s just the fact that I’m stubborn and lazy and that I like eating my food. So yeah.
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. 

Sean discusses all the things he thought were responsible for causing his excess weight.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Male
I don’t think it’s the portion that’s my problem. I think its like how often do I eat because I eat like, if I eat at 2 o’clock then like 2.30 or 3 o’clock I’ll be eating again, so I think that’s what happens. It could be the portion and how often you eat as well.
So you tend to eat quite …?
Quite often, instead of quite big portions at one time.
Okay so you eat a small amounts but …?
Not small [laughs] but medium, not large.
But if you eat at 2.30 then you go and eat at 3?
Yeah. Because I think it’s probably because I’m bored and I didn’t have anything to do. That’s why. I think the more busy I am, the less I eat.
So it’s a question of boredom also?


So when you are busy do you forget about food?
Yes. I don’t eat as much food but when I’m at home with nothing to do I’ll just eat and eat and eat and no exercise. That’s what used to happen.
It used to happen, yes? Because now you seem to be quite busy?
I think I spent too much time on computer as well, because when you are on the computer you eat a lot and the time flies and so you are not usually paying attention to what you’re eating and how often, afterwards. I think that kind of contributes to being overweight. Because I think many young people these days, tries, to spend a lot of time on their computers, and yes…
Computer and watching television.With take aways so… That plays a part in.
Roughly how much would you say you …
Spend on the computer?
… Spend on the computers and television?
About five hours on computer and then like I watch TV for about three hours.
And how often …?
Every day.
Every day?
Not the, it depends on what I have during the day, but if I’m not busy then that’s what usually my routine is, just watching, just being on the computer and watching TV.
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).

Emily thinks that the weight problem she had was mainly due to boredom-eating and lack of exercise.

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Sex: Female
And so why do you think you had gained all of that weight? What do you think made that happen?
Well I think it was mainly the fact that I just used to eat whenever I was bored or whenever I felt like it, and I’d not, I never did exercise. The only time I’d do exercise is a couple of times in the summer when I was going on my bike or something like that, or play, it got, it got harder as I got older because I became less like playful and going outside to play and stuff like that. So that’s when it becomes hard for you, is when you don’t go outside and play with your friends, or you’re not energetic anymore.
And so the weight sort of gradually increased then?
Okay, and so how much did you weigh when you first came here (Shine Programme)?
Well when I first came I was 11 stone something, but because I’d lost a little bit of weight when we got the letter, so when I started losing weight I was actually 12 stone. Which is, was a bit of a shock for me ‘cos I never used to weight myself either. So, I think it, that was a bit of a shock for me.
And you’ve lost weight?
And how much did you lose?
30 pounds.Which I think if you convert it into stones, that’s about 2 pounds and, 2 stones 2 pounds I think.
Okay, yeah.
I think roughly. And so now I’ve gone from like 12 stone to like 9 stone 7 so, and it feels great as well. 

Emma says that bullying, lack of exercise, no self-esteem and comfort-eating have all caused her to be overweight.

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
How do you explain your weight problem? I mean what do you think caused it?
I think it was sheer the lack of exercise, that just spiralled and spiralled. Obviously because I weren’t going out in primary school and running around like the other kids and playing games like other kids were and things. It were just the sheer lack of me wanting to get involved and do exercise because even as a kid I was never the really confident person that a lot of primary school kids are when they mix with each other, and things. I were never that confident in myself anyway. So, I just tended like from the very, very early on I tended to try and stop out of going out at break times, try and get out of doing PE, try and get out of doing other things that involved ex-, anything to do with exercise and things because I just didn’t have the confidence to be able to try and do something, and... I would, I just had the feeling that other people were gonna laugh at me if I failed.
Oh right. Okay. And, I mean so you think it was more about exercise and not so much about what you were eating, or how much you were eating, or…?
I mean there was times at secondary school where I’d get like big jars of Nutella and I’d have a little bit, and the next thing I knew I’d eaten a whole jar.
So there were issues like that where I would turn to food. And I would eat things that are not necessarily the healthiest option. So I have done that as well.
And so what was it that you got from food? How did it help?
I don’t know, I just think, I think sometimes it just made me, it gave me something to do.
If I, like, I wouldn’t go out so I’d bury myself in my work. But if I were bored with my work, I could always turn to food and eat. 
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.

Becca has identified the reasons why she overeats and is trying to overcome them.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
I mean I think that the physical side of eating and overeating sometimes it is a personal, you know, it is a personal choice that if you, you eat it that’s it, but most people don’t know the reason why they do.
I don’t think because I didn’t, I just thought ‘oh I, it follows in my family that we overeat so that is clearly in my genetics so I was born to overeat’ so most people don’t know the cause of why they are overweight and I think that, I think that the majority of it is probably an emotional factor, I don’t think, I know that there is genetics and all the other things that come into it, but I think that the emotional side of it is quite a huge factor and, as a personal choice, I mean it is hard to fight bad habits and fight, you know, the fact that why you over ate in the first place but I think once you come to terms with that that is when you start making your own personal choices because, you know, it, it is the individual’s choice to overeat or to do something about it but I think you have to reach a certain state of mind, like I have, I know the reason why I overeat and I tackled it and maybe I haven’t overcome it because I still have the days when, you know, I think ‘I’m stressed so I’ll eat’ but then I’m trying to replace that with ‘I’m stressed so I’ll relax’ or something like that, so yeah I think in, in order to be able to make conscious personal choice of what you really want to do the emotional side has to be tackled because, I mean, you know, a lot of people don’t really know the cause of it which I think is a problem, so yeah. 
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. 

Mary isn't sure that there's link between eating behaviour and genes.

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
I wouldn’t say the sort of eating behaviour is necessarily has sort of been, shall we say, having a genetic influence. I mean I do think when it comes to sort of body shape and, and things like that there is a genetic element to it. So for example I mean I’m, you know, the shape I am. My husband is not skinny either, he’s a certain sort of shape and sort of stocky I suppose. So I think there’s an influence there but I do very much feel with diet that you can change, change things and, and do that. Now, I mean whether, I mean I know people will say, “Oh, it’s your metabolism.” But whether there is a genetic element to that I’m, I’m not quite sure really but I mean I do feel if you eat sensibly and exercise then you can keep a healthy weight. I mean I think maybe to expect to be very skinny when it’s kind of not your build then I think that could be difficult. I mean but no generally I wouldn’t view eating behaviour, for example, as, as kind of having a genetic element at all. I think that’s something that you can certainly do something about. I mean I see strong kind of psychological [laughs] element to it in terms of, you know, eating behaviours being affected by mood and everything but not so much genetic. In that sense, I don’t think you’re born to be fat. I don’t believe that really, you know. 

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.

Sue thinks that her daughter’s weight is due to her large appetite and her grandmother's attitude to food.

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
My daughter’s always been overweight she was born quite a big baby, not massive but quite big 8.3. And went onto, she was breastfed to start with quickly that was not enough and went onto formula quite early and got permission from the doctors to put her on the follow on milk very fast. Has always been very, very attached to food from, literally from birth it seems. What could be part of that actually, which was an interesting thing I’ve been thinking about recently since we started talking about what could have been the start of that because my experience with her, her entire life has been around food. When she was, when she was very, very small she had a reflux problem, the muscle at the top of her stomach didn’t, hadn’t properly formed, which apparently happens quite often, and if she was laid flat after food she would be sick and so for the first year and a half of her life she spent with the prettiest bibs you could imagine, we had a full array of bibs [laughs] and she literally rotated around them she could project-, projectile vomit also she is very, very good at that as well. So basically we had a lot of issues with food right from very early on but it settled down reasonably, it was copable that kind of thing. Also a very low patience threshold even as a small child and as a small child, I can see it now how I built into it when we were out shopping or something like that she was quite a fractious child and would cause mayhem basically. And I would basically keep things with me healthy things but nevertheless food and as we were going round I would, it would be a drip feed to keep her quiet basically as we were shopping and that kind of thing.
So looking back on it now you think oh you can see the sort of seeds of that right from the very beginning and take your responsibility for that. She also had very definite tastes from a very early age, she’s a very, very strong character, she’s a very, very strong character and very early on she knew exactly what she wanted and what she didn’t want and what she would have and what she won’t have.
As I say got a very strong personality very loud when she wants to be, actually she’s very loud full stop [laughs] when she doesn’t want to be she doesn’t know the meaning of quiet, well she doesn’t have an indoor button. And very early on we saw problems with her, she was a chubby child, she has an elder brother who’s three and a half years older than her, who was always a lot more active as a child right from the beginning he was very, very active right from the beginning, was the kind of child who…  in retrospect was more like, in inverted commas, you know, more “normal” if you like in terms of eating habits, ate sometime didn’t other times and sometimes you’d get worried because he wasn’t eating enough, never had that problem with my daughter, she always wanted to eat, she could always eat.
The other issue that came up about the same time is that my mother, who had retired, I was running a market research company at that point, and my mother who had retired spent a lot of time with us. When I had a big project she would come down and stay with us for literally months on end. She and my daughter have a very close relationship, did right from the very beginning, they just are very, very close. And my mother being of the war generation basically equates love and food, that’s it the two go hand in hand that’s all she’s interested in basically. And she, to be honest, we have had more fights and run-ins over the years than I care to, it’s on a regular basis and still is because she will, she would, she doesn’t understand that food, you don’t give food as treats and I picked, I got that fairly early on with daughter because I realised fairly early on that this was not a good thing to be happening. 
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.

Charles' son's weight gain didn't cause any concerns until he was four, when it became more noticeable to family and health professionals.

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Age at interview: 44
Sex: Male
My son, was diagnosed with kidney problems in when he was in the womb. At a very early stage and at birth various things were carried out, various tests and after a period of three to four years weight gain became apparent. Only very slightly as part of his growing, his development and it was it was noticed at a fairly early stage by health visitors and that sort of thing but it was thought to be just a developmental issue which would disappear as he grows and this sort of thing. As he grew older and older and older it became apparent there was more to the weight gain than was first thought. And despite various attempts to lose weight he hasn’t been able to control it, we haven’t been able to control it and hence he has reached the stage where fairly drastic forms of action have to be taken now to have to try and reduce the impact it’s having on his life. 

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated February 2012.

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