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Updated December 28, 2020
We all know the usual weight gain suspects. There’s your couch and those addicting sugary and salty foods. Or maybe you’ve been exercising less and eating more. (The opposite of Roseanne Barr’s self-proclaimed “revolutionary” diet breakthrough.)
But what if you’re diligently visiting the gym, filling your plate with healthy foods and still gaining weight? Contrary to what many diets tell us, the number on your scale has to do with a lot more than just your calorie count. Sometimes, your hormones, medications and nutrient levels can mean the difference between a slim physique and one that leaves you frowning at the mirror.
If your weight doesn’t seem to line up with your diet and exercise habits, it’s time to take stock of your lifestyle. Here are some of the potential weight gain culprits that you might be overlooking.
Whay am I gaining weight for no reason? Here are 5 possible explanations
1. You’re not sleeping
Sleep is a much bigger deal than we want to believe. Sleep deprivation affects our moods and ability to make rational decisions, keeps our growth hormone from kicking in, and can also affect our waistlines. Medical researchers at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health found a clear link between lack of sleep and obesity. In a group of 60,000 female nurses, researchers found that the women who slept for fewer than five hours each night had a 15% higher risk of becoming obese. The women who slept seven or more hours on average did not have an increased risk of obesity.
Although the exact reason for this connection isn’t clear, several similar studies echo these findings. One theory is that lack of sleep may increase hunger by spiking ghrelin production. Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates the appetite and promotes fat storage. In other words, hormones could be driving you to snack throughout the day.
2. You’re stressed
We all deal with stress. In limited amounts, stress is actually good for us; it can keep us motivated and out of harm’s way. However, when our bodies are in a near-constant state of stress, we secrete higher amounts of the hormone cortisol, which may work to increase your appetite. Cortisol stimulates our fat and carbohydrate metabolism, making us crave sweet, salty and fatty foods. And we all know what that leads to.
But stress does more than increase your appetite. Hormones like cortisol and leptin, which are released during stressful times, can slow down our metabolism, often resulting in weight gain.
3. You’re depressed
As if depression isn’t tough enough on its own, it can also lead to weight gain. The American Journal of Public Health published a landmark study showing that people who felt sad or lonely on a regular basis gained weight faster than their peers with no signs of depression.
What’s the reason for this? In some cases, people who are feeling down are less compelled to hit the gym, even though exercise has been shown to curb sadness and lift our mood. Others may partake in emotional eating, which, yes, is a real phenomenon triggered in our bodies. Some antidepressants may also cause weight gain, so check with your doctor if you think this could be the case for your extra pounds.
4. You’re missing out on key nutrients
Vitamins and minerals play a surprisingly key role in helping you maintain a healthy weight. If your body is low on nutrients like iron, magnesium or vitamins A and D, you might have more trouble staving off weight gain. A lack of B vitamins could slow your metabolism.
A study from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition revealed a clear link between weight gain and vitamin deficiencies. Researchers looked at the results from 18,000 Americans over the course of seven years and found that compared to average weight adults, obese participants had between 5 to 12% lower intakes of most micronutrients, and 20% lower intakes of vitamins A, C, and magnesium.
5. Low energy
Another factor is low energy. We often compensate for our lack of energy with sugar, fat, caffeine or simple carbs that take the form of convenience foods. In reality, we should be eating more fruits, vegetables and lean proteins when we’re feeling low, despite how counterintuitive it might feel.
Ultimately, your weight isn’t just about your caloric intake and calorie burn. Weight gain could be caused by hormones ramping up their activity during times of stress or exhaustion, or by our poor nutrition choices when we’re low on energy. Although there’s no “magic bullet” for shedding the extra pounds, understanding your body is key to making the changes needed to optimize your weight.
In the end, if you’re inexplicitly gaining weight, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor right away. You can also get genetic tests to better understand your predisposition for gaining fat versus muscle, and work with a dietician or other specialist to transform that data into a tailored action plan.