Why Am I Gaining Weight on a Diet?
By Staci Amend
So, you’re cruising right along in your weight loss journey, and the pounds are coming off every week. You feel great! You’ve got this! And then, seemingly out of the blue, you stop losing. Or even worse: you gain a pound. Yikes! What happened? It’s not like you’re doing anything differently... or are you? Here’s a rundown of some potential reasons you could be gaining weight on a diet rather than losing, and what you can do to reverse the trend.
You’re Eating Too Much (Quality over Quantity)
If you have made the transition to halfway, you may be eating out more frequently or cooking more for yourself. That’s great—this gives you practice with your healthy food prep skills, as well as more freedom and variety in your food choices! But it may also be exposing you to risk of “portion distortion,” so make sure you’re using visual cues to determine how much you should be eating. Also, ask questions on how the foods you order out are being prepared to avoid hidden fat calories.
The problem with "portion distortion" is that we may order or prepare one meal and think "Great, here’s one portion." The issue is that it’s often too large, and it may constitute two or even three portions. We just can’t recognize it because portion sizes have become so inflated over recent years. In fact, the average size of many of foods found in U.S. grocery stores, fast-food chains, and sit-down restaurants has grown by as much as 138% since the 1970s1.
Because of this, it’s important you familiarize yourself with proper portion sizes and pay attention to how much of each food you’re eating. One way to do this is by using a portion or divided plate. A Portion Plate uses the MyPlate healthy diet guidelines to divide your plate by food group and give you visual cues so you know exactly how much of each food to put on it. Or use this portion infographic to help visually know how much of certain foods you should be eating. Not watching your portion sizes could be one of the reasons you are eating healthy but still gaining weight.
Another way to control portions is through mindful eating, especially making sure to notice your hunger cues and stop when you’re almost satisfied, not completely full. Start with smaller portions, and eat slowly, savoring each bite. This will allow time for your body’s hunger hormones to communicate to your brain that you’re no longer hungry2.
There’s something in the water.
The struggle is real, ladies. During the week preceding (and occasionally during) your menstrual cycle, your body can retain enough water to show up on the scale. Sodium can aggravate the issue, so keep an especially close eye on your salt intake during that time of the month, and boost your water intake to help flush the salt you do eat through your system.
You’re not eating enough.
You may be thinking wait—not eating enough can make me GAIN weight? YES, in a couple of different ways. First, skipping meals or snacks can cause you to get hungry enough to stray from your planned, healthy meals and snacks, or eating foods that don’t support weight loss. Second, not eating enough calories can encourage your body to go into "starvation mode," conserving energy and slowing the metabolism.
When you make significant cuts to your calorie intake, your body tries to conserve energy by reducing the number of calories you burn. This is called "starvation mode,"3 Although the name might indicate that your body is actually "starving," this isn’t exactly true. It’s just your body’s natural mechanism to help you maintain your energy balance. However, it can be quite frustrating to get stuck at this plateau. (Note, some weight loss plans use intermittent fasting in which there is a longer gap between dinner and breakfast to encourage the body to burn fat, while still eat the necessary number of calories per day.)
To help combat this and get your weight loss back on track, you can make sure your body is always properly nourished by snacking daily. Eating snacks can not only help manage your hunger, but it can help prevent binging4. This doesn’t mean you should grab the potato chips and cookies. You should be very aware of what types of snacks you’re eating. You’ll want to eat low-calorie nutrient rich options that not only give you energy, but feed your body and support your weight loss goals.
Not all snacks are created equal, and being cognizant of this fact is important when choosing the best option to eat. First, you want a snack that’s low in calories. It is supposed to be a snack, not a full meal. You’ll also want to choose a snack that’s high in water and fiber, like fruits and vegetables, which can help fill you up5. In addition, it is important to make sure your snack has adequate protein. Nuts are another great choice when eaten in moderation; they are high in fiber, protein and healthy fat. Other healthy options include low-fat Greek yogurt, cheese, edamame, and avocado.
Water Retention & Weight
Your body is mostly water and can hold onto excess water at times. If you’ve consumed too much salt — whether it’s from using the table salt at dinner or from eating processed foods — your body will retain water to help maintain a chemical balance. Water retention can also occur because of standing or sitting too long, hormonal changes in your body around your period, and even certain medication6 can have an effect.
The struggle is real, ladies. During and before your menstrual cycle, your body can retain enough water to show up on the scale. Sodium can aggravate the issue, so keep a close eye on your salt intake and boost your water intake to help flush the salt you do eat through your system.
Water retention can be annoying, but there are ways to minimize excess water weight. The first, and most obvious way, is to cut down on your sodium intake7. This includes not only using less salt at the table, but cutting down on processed foods like lunch meats. Check the labels when buying a product, and you might be surprised to find how much sodium is in everyday foods. High sodium foods include meats like cold cuts, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, etc., canned foods like soups, and salted nuts8.
So, what should you eat instead? Good alternatives include fresh and frozen meat, using dried beans that you have soaked in water instead of canned, unsalted nuts or low-sodium nut butter. Eating more whole foods in their natural state or those you prepare yourself is a great way to avoid too much salt.
In addition to cutting down on sodium, you can also increase your intake of foods rich in magnesium, vitamin B6, and potassium9. These vitamins and minerals help with various body functions and have been shown in studies to help reduce fluid retention. Some foods rich in these nutrients include leafy greens, whole grains, avocados, and tomatoes.
In addition to adjusting what you eat, you’ll also want to make sure you’re staying active enough and drinking plenty of water.
You’re building muscle
If you didn’t have a regular workout regimen prior to kicking off your weight loss journey, over time, there’s a chance you could be losing some body fat and gaining some muscle, if you have committed to a consistent workout regime. This is a good thing! Gaining muscle mass will ultimately help your body continue to burn fat more efficiently. Since muscle has a higher density than fat, (it weighs more – though it occupies the same amount of space)
One sign that this could be true for you: your weight holds steady or goes up a pound, but your clothes keep getting looser! While developing, more muscle will obviously affect how quickly you reach your goal, you’re still moving in a healthier direction. It’s so important to measure inches lost in addition to pounds lost to get the whole picture!
Building muscles can help you burn more calories even when your workout is done.10 In fact, research from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that women who completed an hour-long strength training workout burned an average of 100 more calories in the 24 hours afterward than those who didn’t use weights.11
It can be scary looking at the scale and seeing the numbers go up and stay the same, but gaining muscle does more than just change the composition of your biceps. Muscle-building exercises can help improve your blood sugar control, improve your sleep, improve your balance, and even help prevent against osteoporosis.12
Picking the right type of exercise for you can help you get lean while also getting stronger. Some good choices include running, swimming, lifting weight, rowing, Pilates, and more.
When people decide to make a lifestyle change, they often think about how to eat healthier and exercise more, but they tend to forget about what they are drinking. However, it is important to pay attention to what beverages you are consuming because plenty of drinks can be unhealthy and loaded with calories that can derail your weight loss goals.
For starters, most of us know that drinks like soda are laden with sugar and can cause weight gain. But energy drinks and juices can also be culprits. These drinks should be limited or consumed in moderation, not with every meal.
Alcohol is another drink many people forget is filled with calories. You might think you’re taking it easy at happy hour only have two glasses of wine, but that adds up to 350 calories. That’s the same as if you snacked on 4 chocolate biscuits.
Instead of relying on sweetened drinks or beverages, stick to water or soda water. Not only is it calorie-free, but it can help fill you up13 and keep you energized. It is recommended to drink eight 8 -ounces of water a day. Add a splash of lemon or lime juice to give your water a new flavor.
You’re not sleeping enough
It might seem like your sleep habits have nothing to do with your weight, but the two are connected. Feeling tired isn’t the only side effect of sleeplessness. When you don’t sleep well, your body can crave junk food rather than the healthy meal you had planned. Research shows that sleeping less than five hours a night increases the likelihood of weight gain14.
To avoid messing with your body’s hormones and craving foods that aren’t going to serve your health needs, you’ll want to make sure you get enough sleep. Adults between 26-64 years should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night15.
You’re stressed out
Chronic stress can also hinder your weight-loss goals. For starters, people often turn to unhealthy, comforting foods when they’re stressed. Not only that, but cortisol, the hormone released when you’re stressed out, can cause your body to hold on to more fat, especially16 belly fat.
Combat this by having some go-to stress-relieving hobbies like exercising, doing yoga, art, or reading. Turn to these activities instead of heading to the pantry.
You’re getting older
Your age is another factor when it comes to weight gain. Unfortunately, as you age, your metabolism slows down and you burn fewer calories17. Additionally, women going through menopause often experience weight gain.
Just because you’re getting older, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck at an unhealthy weight forever. Healthy eating and exercise can help fight against unwanted weight gain. It means you just need to learn how to adjust your diet. Learn more about diet changes to make at age 40 and beyond.
You’re not exercising enough
You can eat all the salads you want, but if you’re not getting up and moving, you probably won’t see the weight loss you desire. It’s recommended that you get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week at the very least18.
Exercising does more than help you burn calories: It can also benefit your mental health and motivate you to make healthier choices in other areas of your life19. If you’re just getting started with exercise, you don’t have to jump right into a CrossFit class. Start with simple walking routines and easy stretches. Or if you love dancing, take a class at your local dance studio. It’s a great way to get moving, have fun, and do something you love. Plus, it can be a fun and healthy activity to do with friends instead of happy hour.
There are a lot of factors when it comes to weight loss and weight gain, but the healthier your lifestyle habits are, the better results you’ll see.