Why Some People Are Fat* and Others are Thin

They eat more calories than they expend.

That’s the simple answer.

However, as many people have mentioned, there are many factors that influence how much someone eats and how many calories they burn.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what makes some people gain fat and others stay lean. Then we’ll look at which of these factors you should worry about.

Too much eating — not enough movement.

When people eat too many calories relative to their energy expenditure — they gain weight.

When they eat fewer calories than they burn — they lose weight.

Today, we’re going to look at the main variables that affect how much you eat and how many calories you expend.

This won’t be an all encompassing list, but it will give you a basic idea of the different factors that affect cause some people to carry more body fat than others.

High set point.

Your “set point” is a range of body fatness that your body tries to maintain over a period of time.1

When you eat more calories than you need to maintain this level of body fat, your body makes changes to keep you from gaining weight.

Your body decreases appetite and sometimes increases how much you move to help burn the extra calories.

When you eat fewer calories than your body needs to maintain this level of body fat, your body makes changes to keep you from losing weight. It increases your hunger levels and decreases your motivation to exercise.

Both your initial set point and your body’s response to changes in calorie intake can be quite different from other people.

There is a huge variation in how people respond to overeating and under-eating. Some people gain weight almost exactly in proportion to how much they over-eat.2-4 They also tend to have a harder time losing this weight.

Others barely gain any fat despite massively over-consuming calories.5 These people also tend to easily lose the weight they do gain.

With the right choices you can lower your set point over time. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by making smart food choices. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t.

Poor food choices.

People often assume they can eat less and lose weight while eating tons of junk. They’re right. But they usually have trouble sticking to this kind of diet in the long-term.

There’s nothing wrong with small indulgences, but you probably won’t be able to adhere to a diet that’s based around Ho-Hos and Coke. You’ll get hungry, potentially develop nutrient deficiencies, and may also not consume enough protein to help maintain muscle mass.6-9

Few people actually eat like that, but they still don’t make great food choices in other ways. People often don’t eat enough protein, vegetables, fruit, or fiber — and they stay hungry.6,8,10-16 All. The. Time.

These foods are more satiating than the kinds that are typical in most industrialized countries. Eating enough protein is also important to help you maintain your muscle mass while dieting.6

Food availability also helps determine how much and what you eat. If you have lots of tasty high-calorie food available at all times, then it’s easy to overeat junk food.17,18 For instance, if you have a massive stash of Oreos in your pantry, you’re able to eat thousands of calories with little to no effort.

Whole foods like rice, chicken, or butter are still very easy to prepare and can still be a source of excess calories. If you don’t keep a lot of treats in your home, you still probably have easy access to restaurants and fast food.

Another mistake people make is that they surround themselves with a huge variety of foods. This virtually always causes them to eat more than they should.

When you have a larger variety of food choices, you eat more without realizing it.19,20 This is true for both “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods.20,21

The “quality” of your diet (whatever that means to you) doesn’t change how much weight you lose at a given calorie intake. It does influence how much you eat, and thus your ability to maintain a caloric deficit over time.

Sensitivity to food cues.

Much of your eating behavior is determined by food cues — small triggers in your environment that tell you to eat more or less.22-24 Here are some common food cues that influence how much you eat:

How fast you eat.25-27

How fast the people around you eat.28

How many people you’re eating with.29-31

How distracted you are while eating.32-34

Whether or not food is disappearing from your plate.35,36

The size and dimension of the containers you eat out of.35,37

Some people eat more in response to these food cues than others. They eat more when others eat more, they’re more easily distracted while eating, etc.

People who are able to notice and understand food cues that help them stop eating or eat less generally have an easier time maintaing a healthy weight and/or losing weight.

People who are unaware of food cues or don’t respond to them, generally have more trouble losing weight.

Low exercise levels.

Janet is a sedentary person who burns zero calories through formal exercise.

Jake is a highly trained endurance athlete who can burn around 6,000 calories in a single workout.

Obviously, Janet and Jake will need to eat very different amounts of food. Jake can also probably drop weight faster than Janet.

These are extreme examples, but how much you exercise does have a huge impact on your ability to lose weight.

People who don’t exercise are generally at a much higher risk of becoming overweight, have a harder time losing weight, and struggle more with maintaining their weight loss.38-43

People who exercise regularly tend to lose more weight and keep it off better over time. You don’t have to do much, but if you want to lose weight, you should  do some moderate exercise on a regular basis.

Low daily movement levels.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, aka “NEAT,” represents all of the calories you burn from daily movements that don’t count as formal exercise.44

Some people have much higher levels of NEAT than others. They also tend to increase NEAT when overeating more than other people, which helps them burn off the extra calories.44-46

Small movements like standing and fidgeting can add up throughout the day, sometimes to almost 1,000 calories.5 People with high levels of NEAT have a much easier time not gaining weight and losing weight.

Low levels of self control.

Some people don’t have as much self control, or willpower, as others and aren’t as good at controlling their impulses.

When you consider that you make around 200 food related decisions per day,47 this is an obvious problem.

The desire to eat is considered the most common one you experience, making up around 28% of your daily urges.48 Most people act on these urges about half of the time.49

People who are overweight often act more impulsively and don’t control their eating and exercise behaviors as well as lean people, and have a harder time losing weight.50-52

  • They eat the second they get a small hunger craving.
  • They eat because food is available, not because they need it.
  • They eat when they see a fast food restaurant, even if they aren’t hungry.
  • When they eat, they often lose track of their food intake and eat far more than they know they should — they have greater dietary “disinhibition.”23
  • They aren’t good at motivating themselves to consistently exercise, or exercise very hard.
  • They don’t stick to diets in the long-term. 

Interestingly, people who are told they lack willpower when they really don’t give up on hard tasks sooner.53

Let’s say you have someone with a lower than normal level of self control. They overeat on a few occasions, and maybe gain some fat. Then they get angry at themselves and start to believe they’re “weak-willed.” This mindset further decreases their willpower, and they’re more likely to lose control in the future.

Their self-doubt becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your ability to control your behaviors makes a huge impact on your ability to maintain a healthy weight. It will be easier for some, and harder for others, but it’s important for everyone.

Low or nonexistent awareness of calorie, exercise, and body fat levels.

Most people have no idea how much they eat. They don’t read food labels or know how many calories are in different foods.54-84 85-103 They forget how much they ate even minutes after a meal.37

Others simply have no idea how much total food volume they eat. If you asked them to remember how much they ate the previous day, they’d probably underestimate their food intake by at least 25%.

Becoming more aware of your weight, calorie intake, and exercise levels can help you lose weight.

People also usually assume they’re exercising far more than they really are, and that they’re burning more calories during exercise.104

You’re unlikely to make a change unless you’re aware of a reason to do so. If you don’t notice (or ignore) the fact that you’re overweight or not as lean as you’d like, you won’t take action to correct the problem.

This is as true for super lean people as it is for those just trying to be healthy. Even bodybuilders and athletes often lose track of their food intake and body fat levels when they’re not preparing for a specific event, and in some cases gain a lot of fat without noticing. Others have a hard time not losing weight for the same reasons.

Simple behaviors that make you more aware of your food intake, exercise levels, and body fat percentage can have a massive impact on your ability to maintain a healthy weight or lose fat.105,106

Keeping a food and/or exercise journal can sometimes double the amount of weight people lose in free-living conditions.107 Weighing yourself is also important to help you stay aware of how your eating and exercise behaviors influence your body fat levels.105

Lack of responsibility.

Many people blame their overweight or obesity on genetics, slow metabolisms, food companies, lack of education, etc.

In some cases, people do have lower metabolic rates than others. Some people are genetically inclined toward obesity while others are not. Some people grow up in households where they didn’t learn good eating behaviors.

However, these people are overlooking the fact that it’s their body, and thus their responsibility to take care of it.

Maybe you’re at a handicap because you have less awesome genes or didn’t learn to cook when you were young. It might be harder for you to become and stay lean than someone else, but that’s life.

No one is forcing people to eat enough calories to become overweight. They’re the ones lifting the fork, and it’s their job to take responsibility of their behaviors and make positive changes to deal with their problems.

Being lean is not a right — it’s a privilege you earn by working for it.

Misplaced priorities.

People who are thin generally make it a priority to be so.

People like athletes, models, and bodybuilders make diet and exercise a huge priority, because being lean is part of their job. They work hard and (usually) get awesome results.

If you want to get leaner, and what you’re doing now isn’t working, then you may need to place a greater emphasis on behaviors that will help you lose fat.

You can’t create more time. You can make time for what’s important to you.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Taking time to count calories and/or weigh your food, even for a little while.
  2. Making time to eat slowly, so you actually appreciate your food.
  3. Waking up earlier to work out.
  4. Checking Facebook less often, watching less T.V., and reading fewer blogs so you have more time to prepare meals and exercise.
  5. Taking the time to educate yourself about fat loss and body weight regulation by reading clear and well-referenced articles (like this one 🙂 ).
  6. Learning to be more assertive with your boss about your efforts to get home on time so you can exercise or eat a meal with your family.108
  7. Weighing yourself every morning.

In other cases people are motivated to lose weight. They just focus on the wrong things like supplements, avoiding certain foods, toxins, etc. To get lean, you need to prioritize behaviors that will help you lose fat — not just action in general.

Hormone levels and sensitivity.

People with higher leptin and insulin sensitivity are generally going to have an easier time losing weight and maintaing a healthy weight.109 Other hormones like thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen also play a role.

The levels of these hormones can vary a lot between individuals, as can someone’s sensitivity to these hormones. You can also improve your hormone levels and sensitivity with diet, exercise, and weight loss, and poor leptin and insulin sensitivity are largely the result, not the cause, of fat gain.110-116

Genetic differences.

“…genes don’t determine a person’s absolute level of body fatness, but they do determine a person’s degree of susceptibility to a fattening environment.”

Stephan Guyenet

Everything you’ve learned about in this article is influenced by genetics.

Some people get a combination of genes that predisposes them to gain fat, while others get a set of genes that helps them stay lean.117

Most data indicates that genetics can explain about 30-70% of the variance in someone’s susceptibility to obesity.118

In an environment where calories and food variety are scarce and you have to work to eat, even people with “fat” genes are generally going to stay lean. Maybe not “shredded,” but healthy.37

If you have poor or good genetics, that doesn’t mean you are destined to be fat or stay lean. It means it might be harder or easier under certain conditions. You still have to create a caloric deficit to lose weight, and it’s still your responsibility to control your weight.

What you can do to be lean.

Based on the factors you just learned about, here are some changes you can make today to start getting leaner.

1. Make better food choices. If you’re not as lean as you want to be, start eating more satiating foods. Eat enough protein, fruit, vegetables, and fiber. Get at least 80% of your calories from whole, minimally processed foods, and the rest from whatever you want.

2. Become more aware of your eating habits. Pay attention to how much you’ve eaten throughout a meal. Eat at your own pace. Experiment with eating out of smaller bowls, using smaller utensils, and serving smaller portions.

3. Weigh yourself. At least once a week, preferably more often. Record your weight so you can track your progress over time. If it goes in a direction you don’t want — make some changes.

4. Count calories. Even if you only do it for a week or two. This gives you a much better understanding of what foods are contributing to your calorie intake, and where you may need to cut back. Even if you aren’t deliberately restricting calories, recording your food intake generally helps people eat less.

5. Exercise more. Find a sport or activity you like, and start doing it consistently. It doesn’t matter what you do — just do something. Start small with a few workouts per week at a low intensity, and increase it gradually from there.

6. Move more throughout the day. Move as much as possible throughout the day, even if it seems pointless.

  • Stand more. 
  • Sit less.
  • Walk as much as possible.
  • Fidget or bounce your leg while you’re sitting.
  • Take the stairs.

7. Practice increasing your willpower. You can increase your levels of self control with practice.119,120 Start by making small changes to your diet and exercise program. Instead of eating 5 slices of pizza, eat 4. Run 25 minutes instead of 20. Do 20 sets instead of 15.

Challenge yourself a little over time instead of breaking yourself with unreasonable tasks.

8. Take responsibility for your behaviors. It’s your body. If you want to change it, you need to make the right changes. You’re the person feeding yourself and exercising.

9. Make diet and exercise a priority. If you’re using an effective weight loss strategy, you’ll get out what you put in. If you want to be leaner, put a greater emphasis on behaviors that will help you achieve that.

What other factors do you think contribute to fat gain? What other tips do you have to help people lose fat?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

* I didn’t really like using the term “fat” in the title, but it’s easier to read than “overweight.”


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