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Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway

A reference point for public health policy makers with reliable, independent and up-to date information on topics related to promotion of health and well-being.

Page | Last updated: 19 Sep 2023

Risk factors related to obesity

Risk factors related to obesity as described by health-related organisations 

Effect of diet on obesity

World Health Organization 2018
  • ‘daily consumption of fruits and vegetables and limited consumption of foods such as savoury snacks, fast foods, processed meat products and sugary soft drinks reduce the risk of becoming overweight or obese’
World Health Organization 2018
  • ‘Reducing the amount of total fat intake to less than 30% of total energy intake helps to prevent unhealthy weight gain in the adult population’
  • ‘Excess calories from foods and drinks high in free sugars also contribute to unhealthy weight gain, which can lead to overweight and obesity’
World Health Organization 2014
  • ‘More limited evidence suggests that when consumed as part of a healthy diet […], fruits and vegetables may also help to prevent unhealthy weight gain’
European Food Safety Authority 2017
  • ‘The Panel notes that in adults there is evidence of benefit to health associated with consumption of diets rich in fibre-containing foods at dietary fibre intakes greater than 25 g per day, e.g. […] and improved weight maintenance’
European Food Safety Authority 2010
  • Short to medium-term (up to 1 year) and long-term intervention studies provide evidence that a moderate fat intake (<35 E%), after 3 years of age is associated with reduced energy intake and therefore moderate weight reduction or prevention of weight gain
International Diabetes Federation 2016
  • ‘Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages provides little nutritional benefit and may be associated with weight gain, obesity’
  • ‘There is increasing concern that intake of added sugars – particularly in the form of sugar sweetened beverages – increases overall energy intake and may reduce the intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain’
European Public Health Association 2017
  • ‘[…] consumption of high levels of high-energy foods, such as processed foods with high content of fats and sugars, is one of the causal determinants of obesity'
German Nutrition Society 2015
  • 'There is probable evidence that a high intake of fat with uncontrolled total energy intake favours the development of obesity. With an energy-controlled diet, however, there is probable evidence for a lack of association between fat intake and risk of obesity'
German Nutrition Society 2012
  • ‘High consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages increases the risk of obesity with probable evidence in adults and with possible evidence in children’ 
  • 'The majority of the cohort studies indicate that increased dietary fibre intake is associated with a reduced risk of obesity. Therefore, the evidence regarding this association is judged as probable'
  • 'Regarding children and adolescents, the cohort studies available show with possible evidence that there is no association between dietary fibre intake and the risk of obesity. The relevance of dietary fibre intake in children and adolescents might depend on the initial body weight, but the respective evidence is insufficient'
  • ‘With probable evidence, high total dietary fibre intake lowers the risk of obesity in adults’
Nordic Nutrition Recommendation 2012
  • ‘There is clear evidence to conclude that fibre-rich foods (e.g., whole grains, vegetables, fruits, berries, legumes, nuts, and seeds), [..], are associated with reduced weight gain’
U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 2015 
  • ‘Moderate to strong evidence pinpoints the characteristics of healthy dietary and physical activity patterns established to reduce chronic disease risk, prevent and better manage overweight and obesity, and promote health and wellbeing across the lifespan’
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2015 (20)
  • ‘Moderate evidence indicates that healthy eating patterns also are associated with a reduced risk of […], overweight, and obesity’
  • ‘To achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, individuals are encouraged to consume dietary patterns that are higher in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • There is moderate evidence that eating patterns that include lower intake of sources of added sugars is associated with reduced risk of obesity
New Zealand Nutrition Foundation 2015
  • ‘It is reasonable to conclude that the beneficial effects of dietary fibre include a reduction in the risk of obesity’
  • ‘There is strong evidence to suggest that viscous fibre, along with low GI foods can lower CHD risk by reducing risk factors including [..] obesity’

Effect of physical (in)activity and sedentary behaviour on obesity

World Health Organization 2018 
  • ‘Physical activity is a key determinant of energy expenditure, which supports energy balance and a healthy body weight’
EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020 
  • ‘Physical inactivity is an important determinant of adiposity in adults as well as in children and young people’
World Health Organization 2014
  • ‘Energy expenditure through physical activity is an important part of the energy balance equation that determines body weight’
  • ‘A decrease in energy expenditure through decreased physical activity is likely to be one of the major factors contributing to the global epidemic of overweight and obesity’
European Food Safety Authority 2013
  • There is consensus among experts that a habitual PAL of 1.70 or higher in adults is associated with a lower risk of overweight and obesity
EU Physical Activity Guidelines 2008
  • ‘At present there is sufficient evidence to show that those who live a physically active life can gain increased fat utilisation which can help to control weight, lowering the risk of obesity’
International Diabetes Federation 2016
  • ‘Recent changes in the lifestyle of most European citizens, in particular the decrease in physical activity and […], have an important impact on the current epidemic of obesity […]’
Nordic Nutrition Recommendation 2012
  • ‘Low levels of physical activity are positively associated with obesity and age-related weight gain’
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2018
  • ‘Strong scientific evidence shows that physical activity helps people maintain a stable weight over time and can reduce the risk of excessive weight gain and the incidence of obesity’
U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 2015 
  • ‘Evidence [...] pinpoints the characteristics of healthy dietary and physical activity patterns that can reduce chronic disease risk, promote healthy weight status, and foster good health across the lifespan’

Effects of pollutants and chemicals on obesity

World Health Organization 2017
  • ‘There is increasing evidence that being overweight is not only an issue of diet and exercise: obesogens affect metabolic rate, and certain chemicals and pollutants have been linked to weight gain among children’
World Health Organization 2012
  • Obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome are due to disruption of the energy storage-energy balance endocrine system and thus are potentially sensitive to endocrine disrupting chemicals.
  • Obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome have their origins during development and are influenced by the environment during development and throughout life.

Effects of preconception, parental habits, early life, breastfeeding and complementary feeding on obesity 

World Health Organization 2017
  • ‘The risk of obesity can be passed from one generation to the next and maternal health can influence fetal development and the risk of a child becoming obese. The care that women receive before, during and after pregnancy has profound implications for the later health and development of their children’. 
  • ‘The first years of life are critical in establishing good nutrition and physical activity behaviours that reduce the risk of developing obesity. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, followed by the introduction of appropriate complementary foods, is core to optimizing infant development, growth and nutrition’.
World Health Organization 2015
  • 'Transgenerational passage of obesity risk to children occurs both by the ‘mismatch’ pathway, of undernutrition during fetal and early childhood development followed by overnutrition and sedentary lifestyle later, and by sustained risk transmission associated with parental obesity, diabetes (including gestational diabetes) and unhealthy diet, activity pattern and lifestyle'. 
World Health Organization 2013
  • ‘Promote, protect and support breastfeeding, […], as breastfeeding reduces susceptibility to infections and the risk of undernutrition, promotes the growth and development […] and helps to reduce the risk of developing conditions such as obesity’ 
World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization 2003
  • ‘There is increasingly strong evidence suggesting that a lower risk of developing obesity, may be directly related to length of exclusive breastfeeding’
  • ‘Introducing a healthy and diverse range of complementary foods along with breastfeeding can help protect against illness and death, while also ensuring healthy growth and development and preventing overweight/obesity later in life’
Nordic Nutrition Recommendation 2012
  • ‘There is convincing evidence that breastfeeding protects against the development of overweight and obesity’
  • ‘Promoting and supporting exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of an infant’s life followed by partial breastfeeding until the age of one year is one strategy to promote adequate growth and prevent obesity later in life’ 
  • ‘Convincing evidence (grade 1) that longer duration of exclusive breastfeeding or any breastfeeding is associated with a protective effect against overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence’

Effects of socio-economic position on obesity

World Health Organization 2016
  • ‘In high-income countries the risks of childhood obesity are greatest in lower socioeconomic groups’
World Health Organization 2014 
  • ‘Obesity in European children is strongly related to the socioeconomic status of their parents’
  • ‘It is clear that obesity is increasingly related to poverty and is likely to be passed on to subsequent generations’
EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020  
  • ‘Overweight and obesity in children and young people in Europe is associated with parental socio-economic status’. Lower socio-economic status is associated with higher obesity rates.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018
  • Overweight and obesity are influenced by complex interplay of individual, environmental and societal factors
  • ‘It is well established that social determinants affect a person’s health status. In Australia, there is evidence of a gradient in overweight and obesity prevalence across socioeconomic areas’