Obesity: Food, Drink, Exercise, or Sleep?

An image of a fat koala bear sleeping in a tree.Obesity is a public health crisis.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 36.5% of U.S. adults are obese, a condition that increases their risk for many serious diseases. It also drives up medical costs for the nation. For instance, the estimated annual medical cost for obesity in the U.S. is more than $147 billion.

It’s no wonder, then, that government agencies, medical experts, and researchers scramble to find an answer that solves the obesity problem once and for all. But the usual sources can’t offer quick solutions — and you definitely won’t find any answers from the hundreds of money-grubbing diet and fitness gurus out there. Why?

Because all of the “usual” sources are stuck in the past, trying to solve the obesity problem with the same mindset that created it; namely, if people would just eat less and exercise more, there wouldn’t be an obesity problem. Though there have been many theories about what types of foods cause obesity, most of them revolve around the calorie deficit theory of weight loss. This theory treats all calories the same. It doesn’t matter whether you eat a piece of cake or a piece of steak; if they contain the same number of calories, they affect your body the same way.

This theory is dead wrong. But before discussing the REAL cause of obesity, let’s examine the known causes of obesity in more depth.

Factors affecting obesity — and popular theories

There are four main factors affecting excess weight gain and obesity: poor-quality foods, certain beverages, lack of exercise, and unhealthy sleep patterns. Each has been subject to conflicting “expert” opinions about how — or even if — they affect obesity. Fad diets have sprung up around many of them. Let’s take them one by one.

Food’s effect on obesity

Nothing is more polarizing among diet “experts” than food. This one says a low-carb diet is the best way to lose weight; that one says low-fat dieting is a surefire way to shed that fat. Then along comes the Atkins Diet, telling you it’s actually slimming to eat fat! Who are you supposed to believe? It’s enough to make you crazy!

Here’s what research has to say about some of the food categories:

Ultra-processed foods

A recent study found that more than half of the average American’s diet is composed of ultra-processed foods. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers.”

In other words, they are made in a lab. These manufactured foods contain flavorings, additives, and emulsifiers to make you think you’re eating real food. They also contain sugar, salt, and oils. (Think cookies, crackers, potato chips, and cereals.) And studies have found that they cause obesity. There are a couple of reasons why overconsumption of these foods can cause weight gain.

First, they are easy to overconsume, and this is not by accident. Indeed, a recent study found when foods are refined and combined in certain ways, they become addictive. The most addictive combination? Fat and carbs. Thus, the addictive quality of ultra-processed foods leads to overeating, eventually causing obesity.

Second, they negatively impact gut bacteria. For example, one study showed that two common emulsifiers used in processed foods might disrupt the good bacteria in the gut. These emulsifiers definitely destroyed the microbial fauna (good bacteria) of the lab mice they studied. This is a problem because many research studies have shown that the health and distribution of good and bad bacteria in the gut affect weight, the immune system, and other important functions. So, ultras-processed foods may cause weight gain precisely because they disrupt the bacterial balance in the gut.

And here’s something to think about…Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem have a huge stake in the processed food market. They say they’re helping you lose weight while feeding you food-like products that ensure you never will!


The low-carb vs. high-carb diet debates are never-ending. Which is better? Does a high-carb diet cause obesity? Well…it depends on the type of carbs you eat. Carbohydrates come in two major forms: simple and complex. Your body turns both of them into glucose, causing the pancreas to release insulin. The difference is how quickly it does so.

For instance, the body digests simple carbs quickly, causing a spike in your blood sugar levels. The body digests complex carbs, found in non-starchy vegetables, more slowly, which keeps blood sugar levels stable. (The fiber in complex carbs slows their digestion.) Refined carbs — such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice — no longer contain any fiber or nutrients. Research has shown refined carbs cause the biggest blood sugar spikes,  a proven risk factor for obesity.


In the 1960s and 1970s, supposed “experts” falsely linked the over-consumption of saturated fat to heart disease. It didn’t take long for the hysteria to spread to the weight loss arena. Soon, low-fat, no-fat foods were everywhere. Almost overnight, people adopted a low-fat, high-carb diet. And what happened? Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the rates of obesity started climbing from that point.

The truth is, there has never been any scientific proof that eating fat causes either heart disease or weight gain. In fact, research shows those who eat high-fat diets have higher metabolisms than do low-fat, high-carb eaters. (A low-fat diet is almost always high in carbs because there isn’t another choice. Protein and fat go together.) So don’t be afraid of eating fat. It’s good for you and for your waistline!


Ah, the sweet seduction of sugar. For decades, the sugar industry has kept a lid on the health risks of its product. But that’s changing. Many research studies have shown that sugar contributes to many diseases, including obesity.

Dr. Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, blames the rise in obesity rates of the last 30 years on the increased amount of added sugar in our diets. Most of this sugar is hidden in processed food items that don’t taste sweet, yet, manufacturers add sugar anyway.

Research shows sugar consumption drives fat storage and shuts down satiety signals, making the brain think you’re hungry. It also causes chronic inflammation, which can lead to obesity and many other diseases.

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The effects of drink on obesity

There are several types of drinks known to affect obesity: alcohol, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, fruit juices, and diet drinks artificially sweetened with chemicals.

As previously mentioned, excessive sugar consumption causes obesity. But the risk is even greater if you drink your sugar. Many studies have linked the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages with higher levels of visceral fat. This type of fat is stored deep in the abdominal cavity, surrounding vital organs. Higher levels of visceral fat increase the risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other serious conditions.

Unfortunately, Americans love their sweetened beverages. Soft drink companies rake in around $195 bill a year in the U.S. alone. And then there are all the sugar-laden juices that moms give their children, thinking they’re good for their health, never considering that these products cause weight gain. And alcohol…well…there’s a reason heavy drinkers get a “beer belly.” Research has shown that routinely drinking alcohol slows the metabolism, contributing to obesity. This is because the body must metabolize alcohol immediately, so it is not able to metabolize other sugars and fats as efficiently.

Don’t be fooled into thinking diet soft drinks are good for your waistline, either. Several studies have shown that those who routinely drink diet soft drinks gain as much weight as those who stick to the sugar-sweetened variety.An image of cooked steak, potatoes, and broccoli on a plate.

The effects of exercise on obesity

For many years, experts and government agencies have promoted exercise as something that will help end obesity. If you want to lose weight and keep it off, they say, you must “eat less and exercise more!” We’ve heard this so many times that we accept it as truth. We never think to question it.

Studies show, however, that regular exercise really isn’t that effective for long-term weight loss. In fact, intense exercise can even make you gain weight. Intense exercise causes increased cortisol levels in the blood, which has been shown to cause fat accumulation in the stomach area.

That’s not to say that exercise is a bad idea. Keeping physically active has many health benefits. Just don’t expect it to help you burn fat or make up for a poor diet.

The effects of sleep on obesity

The amount of sleep you get each night also affects your weight. Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation may cause weight gain because it increases the levels of cortisol in your blood. This not only increases levels of belly fat, but it also makes you hungry for inSANE foods, such as starchy carbs.

And it doesn’t take a lot of sleep loss to have this effect. Studies show that just 30 minutes of lost sleep can cause weight gain.

Elevated setpoint weight: the real cause of obesity

Experts offer all sorts of reasons for why the above factors cause obesity. But the real reason is that they all elevate the setpoint weight.

Setpoint weight is that number on the scale that your weight hovers around, give or take 10-15 pounds. It is the weight your body thinks you should weigh based on signals from your hormones, brain, and gut. They regulate your weight around your setpoint weight. In other words, rather than being like a scale that balances calories in with calories out, your body is like a thermostat. It adjusts your calorie burn to keep your weight close to your setpoint weight. So if you eat more calories than you need, you burn more calories. If you eat fewer calories, your metabolism slows, and you burn fewer calories. (This has been scientifically proven, by the way.)

When the system works the way it was designed, obesity isn’t possible. The reason obesity is a problem is that something went wrong; something caused hormonal dysregulation. The hormones can no longer send correct messages, so the metabolism doesn’t know how much fat you need. Food. Drink. Exercise. Sleep. All of these contribute to your setpoint weight — in a good or a bad way.

Food, drink, exercise, and sleep: the things that raise your setpoint weight and cause obesity

Everything you eat and drink affects your setpoint weight, as does the type of exercise you do and the amount of sleep you get. We’ll take them one by one.

Food: Processed foods, sugary and starchy carbs dysregulated the hormones, keeping them from sending correct signals to the metabolism. These foods also cause brain inflammation and kill beneficial gut bacteria, both of which raise the setpoint weight and cause obesity.

Drink: Research has shown that sugar-sweetened drinks inflame the hypothalamus in the brain, disrupting signals it sends to the hormones leptin and insulin that control satiety and fat storage, respectively. This research directly links neurological inflammation to an elevated setpoint weight.

Exercise: Prolonged exercise raises your cortisol levels. If you exercise intensely for 30-60 minutes at a time, you’ll develop chronically high cortisol levels, giving you a higher setpoint weight.

Sleep: Not getting enough sleep also raises your cortisol levels and your setpoint weight.

Food, drink, exercise, and sleep: the things which LOWER your setpoint weight

The food you eat and the beverages you drink can lower your setpoint weight, as can your exercise and sleep routine. However, it solely depends upon the quality of those items.

Food: Eating foods as close to their natural states as possible (unprocessed) removes the hormonal clog, allowing your hormones to send correct messages to your metabolism.

Drink: Research shows that drinking plenty of water increases the body’s fat-burning ability, lowering your setpoint weight. Need something more flavorful than plain water? Add a spritz of lemon. You can also drink your fill of green tea sweetened with Stevia, a natural sweetener.

Exercise: Studies show that eccentric exercises burn fat more effectively than traditional exercises, and they lower your setpoint weight. Plus, you only have to do them for 10-20 minutes a week. Eccentric exercise is a fitness and strength training method that concentrates on the downward part of the exercise. For instance, if you’re doing a biceps curl, lowering the dumbbell back down from the lift is the eccentric part of the exercise. To make this an eccentric exercise, simply lower the dumbbell back down slowly and then repeat several times.

Sleep: Getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night — every night, not just some nights — will reduce cortisol levels and lower your setpoint weight.

Next step: end obesity with SANE

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