Nutritionist Bronwen King shares some of the less obvious reasons for weight gain — and what you can do about them.
Are you finding that despite your best efforts to exercise and eat well, rather than losing weight, you’ve actually gained it? You may be surprised to learn that there are many less than obvious reasons for weight gain.
Weight maintenance is more complex than just the balance of what we eat vs. how much we exercise. Factors such as eating too fast, sitting too much, not getting enough sleep and too much stress can promote fat storage, even if you follow a healthy diet. So if you’re concerned or confused about why you’re gaining weight, and you think you’ve got the basics of a healthy diet and enough activity covered, try making some of these simple, practical changes.
1. You eat too fast
It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register fullness when eating, so if you eat fast, you’re likely to eat more than you need before messages to stop eating kick in. A recent study by Otago University in New Zealand found just that. They looked at middle-aged women’s eating habits and found that the faster their reported eating speed was, the higher their body mass index (BMI). This was even after they adjusted the data for other factors including age, ethnicity, smoking, physical activity and menopause status. If you’re usually the first to finish a meal, it may be time think about your eating speed.
Tips to slow down
Thoroughly chewing allows your brain time to register you are full. Digestive enzymes in saliva begin their work in the mouth, so allowing time for these to work aids digestion further down the tract. If you often feel bloated or uncomfortable after a meal, not chewing enough could be part of the reason.
Chewing food until it is almost liquid also increases the taste. There are no taste buds in your stomach, so swallowing too early is a ‘waste of taste’!
Sit down to eat away from the TV. Focus on the tastes and textures in your mouth.
Put your knife and fork down in between mouthfuls.
Don’t load food onto your fork until you have swallowed your current mouthful.
Try timing yourself – a main meal should take 20–30 minutes to eat. Being conscious of how fast you’re eating is the first step in learning how to slow down.
2. You have portion distortion
We often hear people saying ‘I just had a muffin’ or ‘I only had a bowl of cereal’ – but how big was that muffin or bowl of cereal? Research shows there can be huge variations in what people consider a normal portion. For example, for you, a ‘portion’ of muesli may be half a cup but for the person next to you, it may be as big as 3 or 4 cups. Another problem is that what we generally consider to be a ‘normal’ portion is getting bigger – we’re now surrounded by ‘king-sized’ and ‘up-sized’ meals and snacks and family packs that weren’t available 20–30 years ago. A recent paper published in the Australian Family Physician stated, “when portion size increases, people often overeat unintentionally, irrespective of their satiety or the pleasure they are getting from the food”. This leads to an increase in energy consumption and raises the risk of gaining weight. They cite the example of a common takeaway coffee 20 years ago being 200ml and a maximum of about 400kJ, and now being more than double the size with almost five times the amount of energy (470ml with up to 2000 kJ).
Tips to get a real sense of portion size
Use small bowls or plates to maintain healthier portion sizes. Also try using smaller cutlery so you get the same number of mouthfuls for a smaller portion, and therefore a similar sense of satisfaction.
Try weighing or measuring your portion and comparing it to recommended portions. For example, a standard portion of cooked rice is one cup. Could yours be more?
Cut ‘treat’ foods such as muffins, slices and cake in half and share or put away the other half for another time.
What is a portion?
Here are some easy ways to stick to portion sizes, using everyday objects as a handy measure.
1 medium potato = a computer mouse
100g cooked meat = a deck of cards
40g reduced-fat cheese = 3 dice
25g dark chocolate = half a credit card
1 cup flaky high-fibre cereal = a tennis ball
3. You’re a liberal ‘drizzler’
Adding a little ‘good’ fat to your meal, such as olive, sesame or canola oils, can be good for your heart health. However, adding too much can very quickly add lots of extra kilojoules to a dish. Given that each 20ml tablespoon of oil has about 670 kilojoules, even a healthy salad can contribute to weight gain if oil is added liberally.
Tips to use less oil
Each time you use oil, use the minimum amount. Most dishes you make should require no more than a teaspoon.
Swap to a spray oil so you get a more even coverage of the pan without having to use as much.
Write the date on your bottle of oil to see how long it lasts. Divide the total volume by the number of people in your household and the number of days it lasts to get a rough oil intake per person per day.
When you make dressings, try using two parts acid (lemon juice or vinegar) to one part oil. Add lots of herbs and garlic for an extra hit of flavour.
4. You graze rather than have three regular meals
The ‘six small meals a day’ theory is okay. However, eating this way rather than having three main meals can be a trap, especially if you’re snacking because you think you should and not because you are hungry. We sometimes eat less healthy food when snacking, as many readily-available snack foods are often kilojoule-dense and nutrient-poor. It’s also harder to recall food eaten randomly, than food eaten as part of a meal – for example, the kids’ crusts, or a piece of cake in the lunchroom. Also, we often don’t compensate for the snacks we’ve eaten by reducing the size of our main meals.
Tips for eating regularly
Before you snack, ask yourself “am I really hungry?”
Sit down to eat and put food on a plate. This way, you are more likely to register what you have eaten.
Keep a food diary for a few days. This will help you recognise when, what, how and why you eat.
5. You’re not getting enough sleep
For years scientists have suspected that missing out on sleep is associated with weight gain. Studies are now showing that sleeping fewer than seven hours a night corresponds with a greater risk of weight gain and obesity, and this risk increases for every hour of lost sleep. The main theory is that lack of sleep causes an increase in the hormone ghrelin (which stimulates appetite) and a reduction in the hormone leptin (which signals to the brain that you are satisfied). The bottom line here is that losing sleep may increase appetite and, as a result, increase weight.
Tips for better sleep
Stick to a regular routine. Get up and go to bed around the same time each day.
Avoid bright flickering light in the bedroom, such as fluorescent digital alarm clocks or television.
Keep your bedroom cool and ensure your bedcovers keep you at a comfortable temperature. Getting too hot may cause you to wake.
Watch your caffeine intake, particularly later in the day.
6. You’re too stressed
Stress can be sudden — from a fright or dangerous situation — or chronic, from ongoing worries such as unemployment or relationship issues. A potential side-effect of stress is weight gain. Prolonged stress can result in increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). This can then cause hunger and encourage your body to store fat. Stress also leads to an increase in ghrelin (our hunger hormone).
Not only does ghrelin make us hungry, but it also increases cortisol – so it’s a combined effect that makes us hungrier and therefore more likely to eat more and gain weight.
Tips for less stress
Try deep breathing. Shallow breathing is associated with stress, while deep breathing tells your body to relax.
Try yoga, pilates or meditation. Regular relaxation for the mind is as important as relaxation for the body.
Find exercise that you enjoy and do it regularly. As well as helping sleep, it helps lift your mood.
Follow a balanced diet, so your body has the nutrients it needs to cope with stress.
Other strange (but true!) reasons you might be gaining weight
You’re using the wrong colour plate
A recent study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found the contrast between the colour of the plate and the colour of the food has quite an impact on how much we eat. If the food is a similar colour to the plate, people will serve and eat about 22% more than if the colour of the food and plate contrast.
Your drinking glasses are the wrong shape
A ‘fat’ glass tricks your brain into over-serving your drinks. If you use a tall, thin glass, you may serve and drink less, while feeling the same satisfaction.
Eating while watching TV, listening to the radio or using the computer almost certainly means you will eat more as you’re not concentrating on your appetite’s signals.
You feel guilty about what you’re eating
Often, if we feel like we ‘shouldn’t’ eat something, we wolf it down in a hurry. Instead, try to eat slowly, savouring its flavour, texture and aroma and feeling the pleasure of eating. Give yourself permission to enjoy your food and you will be far less likely to overeat.
Did you know? 56% of Australians are trying to lose weight.