What’s the right word to describe how you feel when your diet hasn’t changed but you still gain weight? Frustrating? Annoying? Depressing? It’s definitely not a good feeling when this happens, right?
You’re pretty sure that your diet hasn’t changed. You continue to avoid most junk food and watch what goes into your mouth. Yet, the scale is creeping upward and you can’t figure out why. Your diet hasn’t changed but you’re gaining weight?!?! Is this even possible?
Yes, in fact, it is very possible. And I’ll give you some reasons why!
Calories and Exercise
Most weight loss programs focus on calories in and calories out. Theoretically, if you eat fewer calories than you expend each day, you’ll lose weight. Likewise, if you eat more calories than you expend, you’ll gain weight.
But, weight management isn’t really this simple. Diet programs that tell you to eat a specific number of calories each day will only help for so long…and then you’ll end up right where you began.
Actually, your metabolic rate is affected by way more than just how many calories you eat and how many you burn through exercise.
If your diet hasn’t changed and you’re gaining weight, one of the first things to look at is your stress levels. We’re exposed to stressors all the time, day in and day out. These stressors can be small, motivational stressors. Or, they can be big, overwhelming stressors. There are some stressors that are very obviously one or the other (i.e. you have to hustle back from coffee because a meeting is coming up versus the death of a loved one). But, many of the stressors we face really depend on how we respond to them.
Some people thrive on stress while others become invalids if faced with even the smallest stressors. A lot of this has to do with how we respond to stress, and quite often we don’t have a lot of control over this response.
Women tend to feel responsible for taking care of meal planning, grocery shopping, keeping the household running and ensuring deadlines are met and tasks are completed. Women are usually the worriers, too. We take on too much and drive ourselves ragged because somewhere along the line we got it in our heads that we had to do this, that it is our job.
All of this worry, planning and keeping on top of things takes its toll. Our bodies respond to these stressors by producing cortisol continuously and eventually we start to feel rundown and exhausted.
Overworked Adrenals = Excess Fat Storage
What does this have to do with weight gain when your diet hasn’t changed? Well, cortisol mobilizes energy (aka blood glucose) to where it’ll be needed most during stressful times – the belly, hips and thighs. In historic times, a stressful event usually meant that we would fight or flee from a dangerous predator or enemy. Today, we rarely do anything physical in the face of stressors. So, this mobilized energy gets shunted to fat cells for storage.
Chronically high stress levels continue to mobilize energy and then shunt it to fat cells.
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A few of your hormones, besides cortisol, play a role in how your body manages fat. The thyroid is known as the master gland for metabolism so if any of the thyroid hormones or triggers are off, your metabolism gets affected. Poor thyroid function is one reason why your weight goes up even though your diet hasn’t changed.
Women also have it tough as they age. Estrogen triggers fat storage so, as we get older and our estrogen levels increase in relation to progesterone, our bellies expand a bit. A condition called estrogen dominance plays a huge role in weight gain. Even if your diet hasn’t changed, as you approach menopause, you may notice an increase in your weight due to the higher levels of estrogen.
There is a ton of research available proving that lack of sleep leads to weight gain. If your diet hasn’t changed but your scale is creeping upwards, you may want to investigate your sleep.
Lack of sleep can increase your hunger hormones while lowering your satiety signals. So, while your diet hasn’t changed, you may be eating more because you’re hungrier. Even too much good food can lead to weight gain.
What To Do If Your Diet Hasn’t Changed
Alright, so you know that stress, hormones and sleep can prompt weight gain even if your diet hasn’t changed. But, where do you start? Too much stress or poor stress response can interfere with your normal hormone levels AND affect your sleep.
So, if you’ve noticed weight gain, especially around your belly, even though your diet hasn’t changed, my first suggestion is to address stress.
Stress hormones affect blood sugar and insulin, steal resources from other hormones like progesterone and thyroid hormone, and interrupt your normal sleep pattern. Stress hormones trigger fat storage around your middle; fat cells are very good at producing estrogen, which also promotes fat storage.
So, you see, stress is kind of at the heart of many weight complaints.
Foods to Help Manage Stress Response
Let’s get to the bottom of your unexplained weight gain. The first thing we need to do is address blood sugar, because when blood sugar is too high from chronic stress, it affects your body’s ability to use it as energy. You’re left hungry and fat.
I know your diet hasn’t changed but it might be time to take a few more steps towards healthy eating. Cut the sugar, all of it, including natural sources and artificial sweeteners.
Cut back on caffeine because it spikes cortisol in the body. In fact, reduce your intake of alcohol, commercially-raised animal products, especially red meat, and dairy because these can all spike cortisol.
Eat a diet high in fresh vegetables, limited organic fruits, gluten-free whole grains, raw nuts and seeds, organic animal products and some legumes.
Foods that help regulate blood sugar are cinnamon, avocado, blueberries, and complex, unrefined carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, beets, and squash.
Stress Management Lifestyle Tips
Stress management is your number one goal right now. Find activities that relax you and schedule them into your day. Look for ways to laugh more and practice mindfulness. Yoga, meditation, coloring, knitting and dancing are all great stress reduction activities.
Maintain a regular, moderate exercise routine too. One of the first things people do when they see weight gain is to start exercising more often. Stop this – exercise is a great stress reliever, to a point. Exercise too much and you’ll just make your stress response worse, and gain more weight.
There are lots of factors that can affect your weight, even if you’re eating the same way you always have. Stress is probably the most influential factor, but aging, changing hormone levels and poor sleep contribute to weight gain. If your diet hasn’t changed but the scale isn’t budging, try eliminating foods that triggers your stress response. And, engage in more stress relief activities, too!