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10 Hidden Causes of Weight Gain

by Sarah Cimperman, ND

When it comes to losing weight, the conventional wisdom is to eat less and exercise more. Food and physical activity certainly play important roles in achieving a healthy weight, but there’s much more to it. Body weight is controlled by internal factors like hormones and neurotransmitters as well as external factors like stress and chemicals in the environment. The only way to lose weight permanently is to address all possible underlying causes of weight gain. Here are the top ten to consider.

Low-Calorie and Low-Fat Diets

Diets deficient in calories and/or fat slow our metabolism and actually make it more difficult to lose weight. Dieters feel hungry, weak, and tired as their bodies attempt to conserve energy and their muscles are broken down for fuel. Low-calorie and low-fat diets inhibit the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and cause nutritional deficiencies to develop. The body perceives a state of starvation and responds by raising levels of stress hormones and increasing the storage of fat. It is possible to lose weight on a starvation diet, but as soon as a normal diet is resumed, the body will compensate by overeating, gaining weight more easily, and losing it more slowly.

To lose weight successfully, avoid easily digestible carbohydrates like sweets and starches (including grains). Fill up instead on green vegetables (make them half of every meal), protein, and healthy fats. Skip snacks and drink only water and unsweetened tea (green, white, red, or herbal).

Too Much Exercise

Moderate exercise can help with weight loss because it lowers blood sugar, improves insulin sensitivity, and helps burn fat, but too much exercise can have the opposite effect. Studies show that high-intensity exercise and prolonged periods of exercise (an hour or more) raise levels of stress hormones like cortisol. High coritsol levels trigger inflammation, make us crave carbohydrates, and cause our bodies to accumulate fat.

To maximize fat burning during exercise, workout at moderate intensity for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. During the first twenty minutes or so of exercise, muscles use stored sugar for energy, but once the reserves have been depleted, muscles start burning fat for fuel instead. If you don’t exercise for more than 20 minutes at a time, your chances of burning fat are minimal. Also, include both aerobic and strengthening exercises in your workout routine. The combination has been proven more effective for fat loss than aerobic exercise alone.

Low Vitamin D

Vitamin D may be best known for its immune and bone building benefits, but it’s also a key regulator of fat and metabolism. Observational studies show that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D gain more weight, on average, than people with the highest levels. This doesn’t mean that low vitamin D levels cause weight gain, but it does show that low levels of vitamin D can predispose people to gain weight more easily.

Vitamin D can be taken in supplement form but it doesn’t have the same effect as sunlight, which stimulates the body’s own production of vitamin D in the skin. Sun exposure sets off several beneficial biochemical pathways in the body (the production of vitamin D is only one) and it helps regulate our circadian rhythm, which also plays a part in regulating fat and metabolism. To ensure adequate vitamin D, get fifteen minutes of early morning sunlight each day (avoid intense sun exposure) and take 800 to 1200 IU of vitamin D3 daily with your doctor’s permission.

Chronic Stress

During times of physical and psychological stress, our adrenal glands increase their production of stress hormones like cortisol. Chronic, unmanaged stress and high levels of cortisol deplete serotonin, raise blood sugar and insulin levels, trigger food cravings, increase fat accumulation, and promote weight gain.

To prevent stress from sabotaging your efforts to lose weight, manage it effectively. There are several strategies, from exercise and deep breathing to yoga and meditation. Pick what works best for you and practice it regularly.

Lack of Sleep

Like stress, lack of sleep increases levels of cortisol. Not getting enough sleep also causes levels of ghrelin, a hormone that makes you hungry, to go up, and levels of leptin, a hormone that reduces appetite, to go down. As a result, we eat more, our cells become less sensitive to insulin, and our bodies accumulate fat. In one study of healthy men, being deprived of just two hours sleep caused them to crave sugar and eat more of it.

If you’re trying to lose weight, get plenty of sleep. That means at least eight hours each night in the summer, when nights are naturally shorter, and nine hours or more in the winter, when nights are naturally longer. Sleep in an environment that is quiet, comfortable, cool, and completely dark.

Food Sensitivities

Compounds in foods can cause irritation in people who are sensitive to them. The two most common food sensitivities are cow’s milk and gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some oats). Irritation from food sensitivities can trigger inflammation, swelling, and weight gain. In people who are not sensitive, these foods do not cause such problems.

To find out if you have food sensitivities, follow an elimination diet. Avoid possible problem foods completely for at least a month and then re-introduce them one at a time, in their most pure form, and gauge your reaction. Blood tests are available but they aren’t always accurate. On an elimination diet, people with food sensitivities often feel better right away and in the end they’re more motivated to avoid the foods that cause adverse reactions.


Several medications can cause weight gain and interfere with weight loss. Culprits can include birth control pills, anti-depressants, antipsychotic drugs, corticosteroids, allergy medications, heartburn drugs, seizure medications, and diabetes drugs. If you are overweight and taking any of these medications, ask your doctor about alternatives.

Hormone Imbalances

Hormones in the body work together to regulate weight gain and weight loss. Imbalances in levels of insulin, melatonin, thyroid hormone, cortisol, adrenaline, DHEA, estrogen, and/or testosterone can promote weight gain. Weight gain, or more specifically fat accumulation, also promotes hormone imbalances. Because adipose cells convert testosterone to estrogen, excess body fat can raise estrogen levels in both men and women. If you have a known or suspected hormonal imbalance, address it with your doctor.

Neurotransmitter Deficiencies

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow cells in the brain to communicate. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that function in parts of the brain controlling mood, appetite, and addictions. When levels of serotonin and dopamine are low, we crave sweet and starchy foods and we’re more likely to binge or overeat.

Optimizing levels of serotonin and dopamine can naturally suppress appetite and weight gain. To restore neurotransmitter balance, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, exposure your skin to early morning sunshine, and have good sex often. Make sure you’re getting building blocks like vitamin B6 and the amino acid tyrosine from your diet. Good sources include avocados, salmon, and halibut. Also consider meditation, which has been shown to boost low levels of dopamine.

Chemicals in the Environment

Chemicals in the environment can cause hormone imbalances that trigger fat accumulation and weight gain. These "endocrine disruptors" include pesticides, added hormones, bisphenyl-A, phthalates, and parabens. They’re found in food, water, plastics, and personal products.

To reduce your exposure to these chemicals, eat organic whenever you can. Avoid all meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that were exposed to pesticides, herbicides, or hormones. Avoid eating food from cans unless they’re BPA-free and never heat or store foods or beverages in plastic containers. Use personal products free of phthalates and parabens (search the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to find the safest options: www.ewg.org/skindeep). And at least once or twice each year, undertake a detoxification program prescribed by your naturopathic doctor and tailored to meet your individual needs and goals.

References available upon request. Dr. Sarah Cimperman is a naturopathic doctor in private practice in New York City. For more information, call 646-234-2918 or visit www.drsarahcimperman .com. Read her blogs online at adifferentkindofdoctor.blogspot.com and naturopathicgourmet. blogspot.com.

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