8 Sneaky Reasons You Could Be Gaining Weight, According to a Dietitian
It's frustrating when your pants don't button, but even more frustrating when you can't figure out why. If it seems like you eat pretty healthy and workout but are still gaining weight, keep reading to learn ten sneaky reasons you could be putting on the pesky pounds—plus what you can do to help combat the weight gain.
1. You've stopped weighing yourself
There are pros and cons to using the scale to track progress, but for those who have lost weight and are trying to maintain it, research shows that weighing regularly is linked to better success with maintaining weight loss. So, if you used to weigh yourself daily or weekly and then stopped, it could be the reason you're packing on the pounds. If you rely on clothes alone, you could be up three to five pounds by the time your pants start to feel tight, which is more daunting to have to lose than one or two pounds. Stepping on the scale once a week is a simple strategy for keeping your goals front of mind and influencing your food and exercise decisions for the better.
That being said, if the scale brings up too many negative feelings for you, there are other strategies you can focus on.
2. You're skimping on fat
This one may seem counterintuitive. You may be thinking, "Doesn't eating fat make you fat?". The short answer: not necessarily. Eating too many calories from any nutrient can lead to weight gain. Fat is digested slowly and increases satiety. This means you might actually eat fewer total calories in a day because you stay full for hours and snack less. On the flip side, not eating enough fat could be the reason you're feeling so hungry, and thus eating more. (Read more about the sneaky signs you're not eating enough fat here).
So, go ahead and have 2% Greek yogurt instead of nonfat for breakfast. Add heart-healthy fats like walnuts to oatmeal, some avocado and nuts on your salad at lunch, and salmon at dinner, which is full of omega-3 fatty acids.
3. Your portions are too big—even of healthy foods
"We know a jumbo soda is too big but we overeat on healthy foods too, that we think are good for us, and we are unaware of how much we are eating," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim. "Nut butters. So delicious, right? But with nearly 100 calories per tablespoon, you start adding these to smoothies, toast, apples, etc. and you may wind up consuming more energy than you need," says registered dietitian, Melissa Altman-Traub M.S., RDN, LDN. Calories from fat can add up quickly—half of an avocado is about 150 calories, ¼ cup of nuts is 200 calories and one tablespoon of olive oil is 120 calories, so while fat keeps you full, be mindful of portion sizes.
The same goes with protein. "More protein isn't better," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. If you eat more protein than your body needs, the rest is stored as fat. "The key is spreading it out throughout the day. We only need about 4 ounces of protein per meal for muscle growth and repair to support metabolism. Most people consume much more than that, especially when dining out and the extra calories add up quickly. Increasing veggies to 1/2 of your plate and keeping protein portion sizes to 1/4 with healthy whole grains or beans in the last 1/4 will help increase fullness from fiber and decrease total calories," says Harris-Pincus.
4. You're mindlessly eating
Mindless eating is eating without an awareness of what you are eating or how much you are eating. "Whether you're snacking while preparing a meal, grazing and binge-watching Netflix, or sampling every dish of deliciousness at happy hour, food isn't your focus," says registered dietitian, Kelsey Pezzuti, M.S., RD. These few extra hundred calories here and there may not seem like a lot in the moment, but it can be enough to add up to weight gain over time.
Eating too quickly can also lead to consuming more calories without realizing. "Research shows that our brain needs approximately 20 minutes to receive fullness signals from our digestive system. Meaning when we slow down and pace ourselves during a meal, we eat an adequate amount of food and don't feel overly stuffed afterwards," says registered dietitian, Erin Hendrickson, RDN.
When you eat mindfully, without any distractions, you are more in tune with your satiety signals, which lead you to stop when you are full versus continuing to eat because the food is there. Eating mindfully is a simple way to nix 100-300 calories or more from your day without feeling restricted or deprived. Put your food on a plate, and aim to eat as many meals as you can sitting down without any distractions—sans phone, T.V. or computer.
5. You snack too much in the afternoon
You can blame diet culture for this one. The "eat less, move more" messaging unfortunately leads people to not eat enough at breakfast and lunch, which then backfires around 3 P.M., and leads to a graze-fest until dinner. Instead of aiming for the lowest calorie breakfast, fill your morning meal with protein, fiber and healthy fat. Try whole-wheat toast with two eggs and avocado or oatmeal with peanut butter and berries.
Stop eating skimpy salads at lunch that only have vegetables and chicken. Add ½ cup of whole grains like farro to your salad, which will add filling fiber. Mix in avocado or nuts, which have healthy fats. The combo of protein, fiber and fat at lunch will suppress hunger hormones and keep you full. Most people need a snack mid-afternoon but with better blood sugar control from a balanced breakfast and lunch, it will be easier to have a more controlled, structured healthy snack that will hold you over until dinner.
6. You're drinking more calories than you realize
"Few of us drink coffee just plain black anymore," says Cheryl Mussatto M.S., RD, LD "Those multiple pumps of syrup, whipped cream, caramel or chocolate syrup topping make our favorite simple hot drinks more like a drinkable dessert. And when pouring a cup daily or multiple times daily, these add-ins can easily contribute to weight gain," says Mussatto. Even a plain latte has about 100 calories from the milk. All it takes is about 250 extra calories per day to gain two pounds per month.
Alcohol calories can add up, too. "While red wine can be part of a healthy lifestyle, it's easy to drink more than you think," says Brittany Crump, M.P.H., RD, LD, registered dietitian at Savor Nutrition. "It's important to make sure you are mindful of serving size. The serving size of wine is 5 ounces while the standard wine glass is 12 ounces. If you are filling your glass to the top, you are probably consuming more calories than you think," she says. Five ounces of wine, twelve ounces of beer, and 1.5 ounces of liquor have about 120 calories.
7. You graze throughout the day
Every time you eat, blood sugar rises, signaling the release of insulin, a hormone that takes sugar from your blood to your cells for energy. But if you eat more calories than your body needs, insulin will store the rest as fat. If you are constantly eating throughout the day—every 1-2 hours—insulin is constantly released, driving the storage of fat.
Instead of focusing on eating less to lose weight, which leaves you hungry, focus on eating more at meals so you stay full longer and can go 3 to 4 hours between meals. Build a balanced plate with fiber, protein and healthy fat. This combo slows the rise of blood sugar and insulin and allows your body to burn fat instead of storing it.
8. You sit on your butt all day
When a global pandemic hit in 2020, people stopped going to the gym and turned to comfort foods, understandably so. While it was no surprise that these two lifestyle changes were a recipe for weight gain, there was another change that was less obvious: the loss of daily movement. If you're no longer commuting to work, walking around an office, going outside on a lunch break, commuting back home and going to the gym, your daily steps have probably decreased from over 10,000 per day to only 2,000-5,000.
Adding a 30 minute walk to your day can help you burn an additional 130-160 calories per day, depending on your height and weight. But whereas it was built in before, you now have to be intentional or it won't happen. In other words, schedule it and set a reminder. You don't have to do 30 minutes at once. Try 15 minutes on your lunch break and 15 minutes after work, for example.