Penny Gordon-Larson, a professor of nutrition at UNC Chapel Hill, at UNC Charlotte's uptown campus, where UNC Charlotte, where she spoke to public health students and others about childhood obesity. (Photo: Glenn H. Burkins for

Penny Gordon-Larson, a professor of nutrition at UNC Chapel Hill, has spent much of her career researching the causes and health effects of obesity. She has not had a shortage of subject matter.

About 36 percent of all adults in the U.S. are classified as obese. That’s in addition to another 12.7 million people below age 19. When taken together, that’s more than the combined populations of California, Texas and New York, Gordo-Larson said during a recent visit to UNC Charlotte, where she spoke to public health students and others about childhood obesity.

It’s no secret that America has a weight problem. Less known are the complex causes.

Here are some facts gleaned from Gordon-Larson that might surprise you.

Obesity is not a lifestyle choice.

While personal behavior can absolutely make us fat, obesity as a societal problem is far more complex than that. Biology, personal behavior and environment all play a role.

“There is a huge system that affects personal choice,” she said. “You don’t just eat a certain way because of your choice. You eat a certain way because of a whole system you live in. I think it’s really important to recognize that.”

Gordon-Larson said food has become ubiquitous in America, even in places we’d hardly expect it – in hardware stores and some veterinary clinics.

Once you gain weight, your body fights to keep it.

For anyone who has gone on a diet then gained back the weight they lost, this may not come as a surprise. Gordon-Larson said there are biological factor at work.

“Your brain and your gut speak to each other,” she said, “and the way they speak to each other oftentimes doesn’t let you think that you are full and makes you want to eat more. So sometimes those messages are working in a way that makes you want to gain weight without you thinking… There is a dialog from all of your hormones and your gut and your brain that are just telling your body, “Gain weight. Eat more.”

Gordon-Larson said this response kicks in after about a year of carrying additional pounds.

Not all obesity is the same.

“Some people may have a little bit more of a genetic risk for obesity,” Gordon-Larson said. “Some people may have been raised in an environment that sets them off to a different path. Some people may eat healthy but not exercise enough. Some people may exercise but don’t eat healthy. You can’t really look at a person and say, ‘That person doesn’t exercise or eat well.’”

Obese people, more than any other group, are subjected to bullying and discrimination. Thy also are burdened with low self-esteem.

“There is a lot of weight bias that we have across the world, especially in the U.S., where people who have obesity are thought of as having a lack of willpower,” she said. “So people treat them as if they can’t make good decisions, or they don’t take care of themselves. They call them lazy and stupid, when they’re not lazy and stupid. They just get a lot of bad name-calling and bad discrimination against them. There’s not really a lot of protection against that kind of discrimination.”

Those extra pounds also wreak havoc on our physical bodies.

In 2013, obesity was classified as a “complex chronic disease” by the American Medical Association. That started to changed how the medical community views and treats obesity, Gordon-Larson said.

“There are enormous health consequences to Obesity,” she said. “It affects every single organ system. Almost every part of the body is affected by obesity.”

North Carolina ranks 24th among the states when ranked for obesity levels. The problem is most acute in urban, minority communities, but it’s also a problem in poor, rural areas. In both cases, poverty is a factor.

Sugary drinks…avoid them.

Gordon-Larson said that if she could rid the U.S. of only one thing to combat obesity, it would be sugary drinks.

“There’s no reason to ever drink them,” she said, “because there’s no nutritional benefit to them. You’re gaining a whole lot of extra calories… Some people can drink sugary drinks and they’re fine, and they can build that into a healthy diet, but not everybody can. And since there is no nutritional value, I would say I don’t know that we need them.”

In black communities, obesity is more about socioeconomic and less about race and ethnicity.

Research shows that African American women and Latinos are disproportionately obese. But there’s a reason for that, Gordon-Larson said.

In poor communities, limited access to supermarkets leave residents little choice but to eat less healthy products found in corner stores and fast food restaurants. Poor neighborhoods are also less likely to have walking trails or fitness centers.

“We have to provide more resources and make healthier foods more accessible and affordable to low-income populations,” she said. And for the African American community (and really in all communities), I would say look for the support that you can in your community, and think about those cultural traditions that you have and ways that you can make them healthier and still enjoyable… If you want to have celebratory foods, that’s great, that’s fine, but you don’t want to do that every day.”

Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.