“Seeing extra pounds creep up on the scale or barely squeezing into a pair of lose pants can feel frustrating, especially if you're following a healthy lifestyle. So what gives? The truth is that sometimes weight gain has nothing to do with what you're eating or how much you're working out. Here are other factors that could be standing between you and your ideal weight—plus expert tips on how to fix them.
You’re not sleeping enough
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Skimping on shut-eye won’t just leave you tired the next day, but in the long run, it could cause you to pack on a few pounds. While researchers are still looking at the exact connection between lack of sleep and weight gain, Wendy Bennett, MD, MPH, says one reason may be that you’re simply awake longer, so you eat more overall. “You have a few more hours in your day, so you’re consuming more calories,” she says.
What’s more: Getting irregular zzz’s can mess with your circadian clock, which can interfere with hormone and metabolic regulation, Dr. Bennett says.
Isabel Maples, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, echoes this theory. “When you’re not getting enough sleep, hormones change and you secrete a hormone that makes you hungrier, and less of the hormone that lets you know you’ve had enough to eat,” she says. What Maples is referring to is your ghrelin and leptin hormone levels. Ghrelin is known as the “hunger” hormone because it increases appetite, while leptin regulates energy and inhibits hunger. When you're tired—like if you're pulling an all nighter at work—you might reach for sugary and fatty foods to help you stay awake, but it increases your overall calorie intake.
Weight loss Rx: Focus on setting a regular sleep schedule, and aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day so your body gets into a regular circadian cycle, Dr. Bennett says. Be sure to practice good sleep hygiene by turning off electronic devices two hours before bedtime and avoid eating too close to the time you hit the hay. Limit your caffeine intake towards the end of the day if you have trouble falling asleep.
You’re super stressed
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Putting stress management on your health check list could have some physical benefits. You’ve probably heard of the stress hormone, cortisol, which protects your body from tense events. And while elevated levels of cortisol can be beneficial for short periods of time, chronic stress can wreck havoc on your body and lead to weight gain. “Basically your body thinks it needs to hold on to fat and calories,” says Dr. Bennett, who says this is because you almost go into survival mode.
A 2018 study from Cell Metabolism suggests there's a connection between high levels of cortisol and fat mass. The study revealed that cortisol can affect a person's circadian rhythm, and when the natural rise and fall of cortisol levels is negatively affected, it may cause weight gain. “People who are overwhelmed also have a hard time fitting in some things that we know are healthy for weight, like daily exercise or cooking for yourself,” Dr. Bennett explains.
Weight loss Rx: Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests following consistent stress-relieving practices like deep breathing and meditation. He has seen patients lose weight by following these techniques regularly.
Bennett also recommends getting into a regular schedule with sleep and healthy activities, like meal prep and workouts. Add them to your calendar, and you’re likely to make them happen—and fight off weight gain because of it.
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Many anti-depressants cause weight gain, so if you're depressed and are taking meds for it, expect to bump up your weight five to 15 pounds, with continued weight gain over the years, says Robert J. Hedaya, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Research backs this up: In a 2015 study from General Hospital Psychiatry, of the 362 patients who were on antidepressants, more than 55 percent of them gained weight over a six- to 36-month period.
If you're not taking antidepressant medication, there’s evidence that feelings of depression are associated with weight gain. One 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that people who feel sad and lonely gain weight more quickly than those who report fewer depression-related symptoms. “They may be eating more high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods,” says Belinda Needham, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology and co-director for the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health at the University of Michigan and the lead author of the study. “Or they may have [cut back their] physical activity.”
Weight loss Rx: “If I see patients who are taking anti-depressants and that could be the culprit of their weight gain, I may wean them slowly off of the drug,” says Dominique Fradin-Read, MD, MPH, assistant clinical professor at the Loma Linda School of Medicine in California. “I may then put them on Wellbutrin instead, which actually helps with weight loss.” If your meds are not to blame, seek out some workout buddies or a support group. “Attending meetings, like Weight Watchers, or working out with a group of friends is a great way to increase social support,” Dr. Needham says, “which can help depression.”
Your body's missing certain nutrients
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Having low levels of magnesium, iron or having a vitamin D deficiency can compromise your immune system, sap your energy levels, or alter your metabolism in ways that make it harder to take healthy steps. “You may compensate for low energy with caffeine, sweets, and simple carbs,” says Dr. Hedaya, “Or find that you feel too run down or weak to exercise.”
Weight loss Rx: While you can try to boost your iron levels by eating red meat and spinach and increase magnesium by adding Brazil nuts or almonds to your diet, it's nearly impossible to consume enough milk or get enough sunlight to compensate for low vitamin D. “It's important to know that it could take awhile to find your right dose of vitamin D,” says Dr. Hedaya. “If you take too much, you can get kidney stones. You need to have your blood tested every three months, so your doctor can make adjustments to the dose for you.” Adding an iron supplement is a little less tricky—but it's still wise to let your doctor rule out hypothyroidism or other conditions that might cause insulin resistance before you start taking supplements.”
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