Most of the time we can pinpoint what causes our weight gain. Whether it’s from obvious overeating or an equally obvious lack of exercise, we typically know the root cause—even if we don’t want to admit it.
But what happens when the scale goes up, and it’s not because of a significant change in your health and fitness regimen?
Surprisingly enough, there are several sneaky culprits of weight gain we all need to be aware of—ones that are all too common in our modern lives. If you’ve experienced the frustration of unexplained weight gain, check out these hidden potential causes, see if they apply to you, and learn how to avoid them.
Culprit 1: Lack of sleep
There are plenty of reasons to get good shut-eye, and enough of it, and avoiding weight gain is certainly one of them. As we sleep, our bodies heal, our hormones regulate, and we are able to recover from daily stresses.
When the body is deprived of sleep, however, it lacks the vital recovery time it needs to function properly. This means you wake up tired, sore, and groggy.
Lack of sleep also makes you crave quick fuel sources—think high carb, especially high added sugar—because you wake up and immediately need a quick energy boost. This lack of sleep is also why you tend to mindlessly snack late at night before bedtime. Being tired and sleep deprived makes you more prone to reach for junk food and more likely to skip the gym.
But let’s say you’re still keeping it together diet-wise and forcing yourself to go to the gym, but somehow you’re still gaining weight. The most likely scenario is your metabolism-regulating hormones are thrown out of whack because they never get the chance to fully reset while you sleep. As a result, the more sleep deprived you are, the higher your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in addition to increasing your appetite also encourages fat storage.
“It’s not so much that if you sleep, you will lose weight,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., clinical director of the sleep division for Arrowhead Health Centers in Glendale, Arizona. “But if you are sleep deprived—meaning you are not getting enough minutes of sleep or good quality sleep—your metabolism will not function properly.”
The solution: If you’re consistently cutting too much sleep out of your day, the best thing you can do is…sleep! The average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night, so if you consistently fall short of this range, go to bed earlier or wake up later.
If your schedule simply doesn’t allow for more sleep, try to rest when you can by taking naps. Also, make sure you prepare healthy snack options just in case you find yourself reaching for a quick energy boost. High-energy foods like fresh fruit and raw nuts provide your body with nutrients and energy to get through your day without sabotaging your progress.
Culprit 2: Diet Drinks/Artificial Sugar
Sugar is public enemy number one these days, and grocery shelves are lined with enough no-sugar-added and sugar-free products to fill a semi truck. But sugar free doesn’t always mean healthy. As it turns out, these sugar-free foods may be more harmful to your fitness efforts than you think.
Studies now show that sugar-free alternatives such as aspartame may actually increase appetite. Artificial sweeteners can be up to 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, so regularly consuming these products skews your taste preferences toward overly sweet foods. This triggers sweetness receptors in the brain to constantly crave sugar, which can make dieting even tougher than it was before.
Another dangerous factor of the “diet-drink” phenomenon is the fact that your body tastes sugar and responds to sugar, but doesn’t receive any real sugar. Although there’s no sugar in diet drinks, the sugary taste still signals your body to release insulin to process sugar, and without sugar to process, your body responds by craving even more sugar to give the insulin something to do. Over time, this vicious cycle of excessive insulin output can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and even type 2 diabetes.
The solution: Artificial sugars are a concern if you have a habit of eating sugar-free foods and drinking “diet” drinks on a regular basis, so the first and most obvious solution is to avoid all sugars, even artificial ones.
If giving up all sweetness in your life is simply not an option, then try creating your own, low-calorie flavorful drinks. Add berries or pomegranate juice to water, sip green tea with honey, or enjoy naturally flavored seltzer. There are plenty of flavorful options out there, and your taste buds will adjust to these no-sugar options faster than you think.