Why am I Still Gaining Weight?

I’m Barely Eating, Why am I Still Gaining Weight?

Few things are as frustrating as setting out to lose weight, making sure you’re ‘doing all the right things’ – reducing your calories and getting daily exercise. But instead of seeing the numbers on the scale ticking down day after day, those numbers stay stuck right where they were when you began your diet. Or worse yet, the numbers keep creeping upward! Sometimes it may feel like you’re gaining weight for no reason!

Every year on January 1st, author Anne Lamott makes the same joke on social media: 

I told my psychologist I was going on a diet for New Year’s, and she said, “That’s great, honey; how much weight do you want to gain?”

Although this could be read as gentle teasing humor, it’s also a good reminder that ‘going on a diet’ is often not the best strategy for achieving – or keeping – a healthy weight. 

Unfortunately, losing weight is much more complicated than the ‘calories in, calories out’ theory most of us have been taught. Aside from our diet, many factors come into play, such as genetics, hormones, and emotions. Purely adopting a calorie-counting approach to weight loss fails to take these other factors into consideration. 

So if you have been controlling what you’ve been eating but still can’t shake off the extra pounds, there may be unaddressed reasons for your weight gain. 

Among my gallbladder patients, here are the three reasons for weight gain that I see most frequently:

  1. Stress

It makes sense that stress would contribute to our bodies and brains wanting to consume and hold onto calories. After all, humans have spent millennia associating stress with possible food scarcity (from conflict, famine, and more). Throughout history, the human body that responded to stress by packing away extra calories would have an evolutionary advantage. 

Cortisol, an adrenal hormone produced during stressful conditions, may cause you to gain weight by increasing your appetite, slowing down your metabolism, and increasing insulin resistance.

But your body can’t tell the difference between stress caused by a dangerous, life-threatening situation versus the stress caused by everyday modern life. Cortisol is cortisol, no matter what causes it to surge through your body.

So if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s a good idea to take a stress inventory of your life right now. If there are opportunities to reduce external stressors doing so is paramount to your health. But you can also reduce stress by shifting your internal response to outside situations. Learning coping skills such as deep breathing, compassionate inquiry (compassionate type of therapy), and mindset work can support you in lowering your stress levels. 

And it’s also worth mentioning that the mindset you are bringing to the weight loss project can affect how much stress you are experiencing and, therefore, how much you are supporting or working against yourself. 

Taking an approach that focuses on making long-term, nourishing food choices, and viewing movement as an opportunity for increasing strength, flexibility, and sensory enjoyment as opposed to an opportunity to subtract calories from your daily ledger, are both going to foster feelings of loving self-care rather than stoking the fires of dieting stress. 

  1. Inflammation

I often hear people describe inflammation as a side effect of gaining weight excessively – but the opposite is often the case. 

The presence of chronic inflammation can make even those with the most disciplined eating or exercise habits have little progress in their weight loss journey. 

Inflammation contributes to gaining weight as it may lead to the following:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Leptin dysfunction (leptin is a hormone that helps in regulating energy balance by controlling hunger)
  • Water retention and bloating

A long-term study of food intake in Brazil showed that it’s not just how many calories we are eating that affects weight loss or weight gain; it’s also, in large part, where that food comes from and how it’s prepared. In this study – conducted by Dr. Carlos Monteiro from 1974 through 2009 – the more ultra-processed foods people ate, the more likely they were to become overweight.

It may sound like a no-brainer, but it is worth reiterating: there is a direct link between eating highly processed foods and increased inflammation in the body, as all processed foods contain unhealthy fats, chemicals, and additives you will not find in whole and fresh foods. 

Processed foods are generally more calorie-dense than fresh foods, but it’s not the calories themselves but the presence of these unhealthy added ingredients that are triggering an inflammatory response. In turn, inflammation in the body sends subtle stress signals to your brain, creating a two-car pile-up of conditions that are working against your weight loss goals.

  1. Sleep Deprivation

Over time, a lack of good sleep will disrupt your metabolism and can also trigger problems with your digestion. Your immune system does a great deal of its work while you are sleeping deeply, so a lack of sleep will also cause your immune system to become weaker. Sleep deprivation increases oxidative stress, free radical production, the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines (causing inflammation), and an increase in appetite-stimulating hormones.

In other words, sleep deprivation is a nightmare for your health (and a booster for gaining weight!)

Unfortunately, stress can be a contributing factor to insomnia, and sleep deprivation weakens your body’s ability to respond to stress – creating a self-reinforcing circle. 

But rather than seeing the stress-insomnia-stress continuum as a never-ending trap, why not think of sleep as an opportunity to hack your weight loss goals from a totally unexpected direction? 

Rather than seeking emotional comfort and stress relief from a favorite food or treat, try giving your phone (and your work) a bedtime at least an hour or two sooner than your own, make up a cozy bed, and treat yourself to a warm shower or relaxing bath before crawling between the sheets. 

By putting the focus on a positive new habit instead of focusing on calorie restriction, you can avoid experiencing the stress of a ‘weight loss through willpower and deprivation’ mentality.

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Talbott, S. M. (2007). The cortisol connection: Why stress makes you fat and ruins your health–and what you can do about it. Hunter House.

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Reynolds, Matt. (2023) “Fat, sugar, salt … You’ve been thinking about food all wrong.” Wired Magazine.  https://www.wired.com/story/ultra-processed-foods/ Accessed 07 March 2023.