Walk down the street, and you’ll find bodies of all shapes and sizes. Often, when people pass by a “plus size” person, they make numerous presumptions and judgments as to the reason for their larger size. It’s quickly assumed that they eat too much and exercise too little. Although this may be true for many, it’s not that simple. There are a number of other reasons why some people are heavier than others, and why we gain weight.
Family history is important.
Without a doubt, some people are genetically pre-programmed to be heavier than others. They have a larger frame, or what is called an “endomorphic” body type–which translates into a fuller, rounder figure. Researchers don’t all agree as to how much heredity contributes to body size and weight, but estimates generally range from about 25%-40%, with one study suggesting it could be as high as 75%.
Bodies have different metabolisms.
Metabolism is the rate at which you burn calories. We are not all alike in this department either. Some people naturally have slower metabolisms, and therefore tend to put on weight easily. This comes in handy in times of famine or during a catastrophic illness, but makes it more challenging to be healthy in our fast food world.
Metabolism also seems to slow with age, making it easier to put on weight as we get older. This is probably a response to decreased physical activity and loss of muscle tone.
More muscle means a faster metabolism.
As we get older, we tend to lose lean muscle tissue. We also have a lower percentage of muscle if we lead an inactive life–at any age. Less muscle mass means a slower metabolism. That’s why many exercise physiologists emphasize the importance of strength training exercises to help maintain a healthy metabolism and weight.
Muscle weighs more than fat.
Have you ever been frustrated because you’ve started exercising and eating healthy, yet your weight has actually gone up? It really is true–muscle is denser than fat, therefore it weighs more. So when you start getting in shape, don’t worry about the number on your scale. In reality, you are burning plumper fat cells, while building compact muscle tissue. The result is a more toned, coordinated, leaner, stronger body, with more stamina to boot. Positive results come from moderate exercise–there is no reason to become obsessive and overdo.
Dieting can promote weight gain in the long run.
As a protective mechanism against starvation, the body slows its metabolism when calories are scarce. This is why people hit a plateau when they diet. Breaking down muscle because of too few calories further slows metabolism and adds to the problem. These are the reasons why–once they go off the diet–people commonly end up at a higher weight than where they started.
Skipping breakfast can lead to added pounds.
Most people are aware that eating breakfast improves energy levels and mental alertness. But less well known is the fact that breakfast eaters tend to eat less overall and have leaner bodies than those who skip. It may be that omitting breakfast slows metabolism, or perhaps it leads to extreme hunger and therefore bingeing later in the day. Many people who don’t wake up hungry for breakfast have fallen into a habit of stacking the majority of their calories in the evening, rather than distributing their intake more evenly throughout the day.
Stress can contribute to unwanted weight gain.
Most people are aware of the weight gain caused by overeating in response to stress. But independent of excess calories, stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which causes fat to be deposited directly in the abdominal area. It also increases appetite.
Lack of sleep can result in unhealthy weight gain.
When we don’t get proper rest, our bodies react in a number of ways, some of which ultimately impact body weight. Studies indicate that with sleep deprivation, there is a decrease in the hormone leptin (an appetite suppressant) and increased levels of another hormone, ghrelin (an appetite stimulant). The result? More cravings, especially for high carbohydrate foods, which can lead to overeating. It also appears that the brain interprets these changes as a sign of starvation, and responds by burning fewer calories. This tendency to gain extra weight seems to occur when we get less than eight hours of sleep a night.
Fluid shifts cause the scale to fluctuate.
The human body is 55%-75% water. This means that weight goes up and down on a daily basis, depending on our fluid status. As a matter of fact, it’s perfectly normal to weigh 2-3 pounds more in the evening than the morning, because we retain fluid in the lower body area as the day progresses. Other contributors to water retention include atmospheric pressure, humidity, salt intake, and certain medications. We also lose and gain water in response to exercise and drinking. This is why it is pointless to weigh yourself throughout the day, because the changes are not a true measure of body fat.
Dieting, especially the low carbohydrate plans, result in significant fluid loss, particularly during the first week as glycogen stores are depleted. When carbohydrate foods are reintroduced, fluid is retained and weight goes up. Again, this has nothing to do with body fat.
Lastly, hormonal changes definitely impact our fluid status. As menstruation approaches, it is extremely common to feel bloated, because water is retained as estrogen levels drop and progesterone rises. This is part of the normal cycle of life, and is not a reflection of body fat. Don’t even bother to weigh yourself–just accept this temporary change.
Eating out and larger portions cause excess pounds.
When dining out–with someone else doing all the work to prepare the food–it is oh-so-easy to overeat. Portion sizes of foods and beverages in restaurants have increased significantly over time, and now it seems that people are following that same trend in their own homes. Being cautious with portion sizes is a simple way to avoid unhealthy weight gain.
We’ve become too sedentary.
With televisions, computers, cars and other technological advances, we just don’t move as much as we used to. To prevent the resulting excess weight, we need to incorporate activities and exercises we can enjoy, making them part of a permanent lifestyle change.
Small, subtle changes can add up to a gradual weight gain.
Although we think we put on lots of weight over the holidays, studies show that it’s only a pound or two for most. But start adding that small annual gain over the course of decades, and many people ultimately find themselves at an unhealthy weight, with accompanying medical problems. Sticking to healthy habits–and including only smaller indulgences during the holiday season–pays off in the long run.
Aside from holidays, weight can gradually creep up throughout the year. Routinely ignoring your body’s fullness signals and squeezing in that extra bit–say 100 calories on a daily basis–can end up with about a 10 pound weight gain over the course of a year. This also adds up over decades.
Some women gain excess weight with pregnancy.
This is also very individualized, probably related to genetics. Some women put on the pounds quickly and easily, yet return to their pre-pregnancy weight within months, while others can’t seem to lose it. Most of the weight gained during pregnancy is due to the increased body tissue and blood volume needed to produce a healthy baby. But some women gain excessive amounts because they view pregnancy as a license to overeat or binge. Women need to stick to healthful eating throughout their pregnancy, for the sake of the baby and their own future health.
Strive to be at your healthiest weight.
There are many factors that contribute to the amount of weight we carry. Due to genetics and the diversity of body types, the healthiest weight for two people with the same height may not be the same. We need to be aware of the many contributors to unhealthy weight gain, so we can make lifestyle choices to help us be at our own personal best weight. Then, we need to accept and celebrate what that weight may be. It’s time to start focusing on health, not a dress size or number on the scale.