The Most Important Habit To Avoid If You're Fighting Obesity

A Cleveland Clinic doctor explains.

You may have heard that the U.S. is in the throes of an obesity epidemic, and rates continue to rise. According to the CDC, from 1999-2000 to 2017-March 2020, obesity rates rose 30.5% to 41.9%. And according to the latest research, 51% of people alive in 2035 will be obese.

First things first: Obesity can come with shame, something one expert wants to banish. "I tell patients I want them to not blame themselves but at the same time feel empowered that there is something you can do," says Dr. David Creel, PhD, RD, a psychologist and registered dietitian in the Bariatric & Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Creel adds that obesity can run in families. But, though you can't change your genes, you can tweak habits to reduce your obesity risk. You can also fight obesity if you have it—and that's not only empowering, it's important.

“We know that obesity is related to a lot of other health conditions," says Dr. Creel. "It increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease, for instance. It increases the risk for a lot of orthopedic problems as we carry weight long-time."

Dr. Creel discussed habits to avoid and practical ways to ditch them, including one in particular.

Related: Best Foods for Healthy Lungs

What Is the Worst Habit for Fighting Obesity?

Fighting and preventing obesity requires a holistic approach. But Dr. Creel says one overarching habit is particularly harmful.

"Unplanned eating," Dr. Creel says. "It can be unplanned in different ways. The time, type of food or even place is unplanned. There’s no structure to someone’s eating patterns. I think that’s highly problematic.”

Unstructured eating can affect several areas of your diet and overall well-being.

"It impacts whether people go to the grocery store and buy food," Dr. Creel says. "If they[...]don’t buy food, what’s available in the house? It can lead to a lot of snacking later in the day or late at night rather than meals on foods that aren’t so healthy, so they get excess calories later."

Then, people don't eat breakfast, and the cycle repeats. People can start to feel guilt or shame about their eating habits, which can exacerbate the problem.

“There can be emotional eating as a result," Dr. Creel says. "If people don’t have planned time and go through the stressors of the day, they can grab something, and it can have a snowball effect. They gain weight and get frustrated.”

Related: The Worst Habit for Inflammation, According to a Cardiologist

Breaking this cycle—and habit—is possible, though.

“Having a plan is helpful," Dr. Creel says. "I encourage people to take one day per week to go to the grocery store and have ideas for meals. Get into some sort of pattern of eating."

A 2017 study linked meal planning with a healthier diet and less obesity. But when you make your list, check it twice to ensure you're hitting certain food groups. “Lots of vegetables, lean protein sources, and balance that with fruits, whole grains lower-fat dairy if you are going to include dairy," Dr. Creel says.

Can I Be Spontaneous?

Yes, says Dr. Creel. Having a plan doesn't mean that you can't take your mom up on her offer to have you over for dinner. "As long as someone’s life isn’t like that all the time, we can make exceptions," Dr. Creel says. "We want flexibility. We don’t want to be rigid. At the same time, we want some structure.”

When you decide to go off-plan, consider eating mindfully using some of the knowledge you apply to daily meals.

"If you go to [your parents' house], and they're having everything fried, watch portion sizes," Dr. Creel says. "Double up on vegetables and have one piece of fried chicken."

Related: New Study Links Artificial Sweetener to Cardiac Risk Factors

Other Habits to Ditch To Fight Obesity

Meal planning is highly beneficial, but there are some other habits you'll want to steer clear of or work on to fight or prevent obesity. What you eat is important, but so is what's in your cup.

“The one thing I see a lot are people with habits of sugar-sweetened beverages or juices," Dr. Creel says. "They drink them all day long. Those calories add up.”

They add up—but they don't fill us up. "We don’t compensate well [for those calories]," Dr. Creel says. "Even if you drink 300 to 400 calories at a meal, you don’t eat 300 to 400 calories less."

And it's not all about diet and calories. "Physical activity is one of the best predictors of keeping weight off once we’ve lost it," Dr. Creel says.

The American Heart Association recommends 75 minutes of vigorous or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.

Exercise may help you feel better, which can help you make better food choices and even sleep more. Speaking of which, don't skimp on it. Dr. Creel suggests aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

"Getting adequate sleep is really important," Dr. Creel says. "Poor sleep is related to hunger hormones which can set us off. If we feel tired, we may not feel like doing those other things.”

Research from 2018 linked poor sleep duration with obesity. Dr. Creel suggests speaking with your doctor if you're having trouble sleeping. Obesity is a risk factor for sleep apnea—a condition in which breathing starts and stops during sleep.

“Sleep apnea makes it hard to sleep," Dr. Creel says. "Then, you’re not sleeping well, and the obesity gets worse. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Break it by talking with your doctor, who can send you for a sleep study. Other tips from Dr. Creel include working out earlier in the day and, once again, sticking to a routine by having a consistent bedtime. "Even on weekends," Dr. Creel emphasizes.

Next up: The Number 1 Best Food for Anxiety, According to RDs


  • Dr. David Creel, Ph.D., RD, a psychologist and registered dietitian in the Bariatric & Metabolic Institute at Cleveland Clinic