Hidden causes of weight gain

Weight gain occurs when you regularly eat more calories than you use through normal bodily functions and physical activity. But the lifestyle habits that contribute to this aren't always obvious.

Losing weight means eating fewer calories and burning more energy through physical activity.

It sounds simple. But more than 60% of adults in England are overweight or obese. Our lifestyles see many of us eating more calories than we need and doing too little physical activity.

Do you recognise some of the causes of your weight gain in any of the following?

Food that's labelled 'low-fat'

Lots of foods in the supermarkets today are labelled "low-fat". But there's a catch, explains nutrition scientist Lisa Miles. "In some cases, low-fat foods contain high levels of sugar. High sugar foods can also contain lots of calories and so contribute to weight gain."

What can I do?
"Read the labels," says Lisa Miles. "You need to look at the overall energy and calories. Although a food may have a reduced amount of fat, it may still have the same amount of calories." A food labelled "low-fat" may still contain more calories than an alternative. For example, a "low-fat" muffin may contain more calories than a currant bun. Find more healthy food alternatives in Healthy food swaps.


It can be easy to reach for a sugary pick-me-up when stressed. Do this often, and you may put on weight.

What can I do?
"Snack on fruit and veg and other low-calorie options such as plain popcorn, crackers and rice cakes," says dietitian Anna Suckling. And find ways to cope with stress that don't involve food. "Exercise helps promote mental wellbeing through the release of endorphins, which help to combat stress," explains Suckling.


Watching a lot of television can contribute to an inactive lifestyle, and many of us consume calories we don't need while watching TV. Suckling explains: "People often find that while sitting in front of the TV, they snack on energy-dense foods such as crisps and chocolate."

What can I do?
"If you're worried about your weight, take part in more daily physical activity, if your health permits," says Anna Suckling. "Try walking to work, school or the shops and spend less time in front of the TV. Don't forget that you can do an activity while watching the TV, such as using an exercise bike." For more ideas, see Get active your way.

Your medicine cabinet

Weight gain is a common side effect of many drugs. The most common drugs that can cause weight gain are steroids (taken for many conditions, including arthritis, eczema and asthma), antipsychotic drugs and insulin, among others.

What can I do?
Never stop prescribed medication unless your GP or specialist has told you to. If you're concerned about weight gain, talk to your doctor. In the meantime, make sure you're following a healthy balanced diet.

Late nights

Some research suggests that a lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain. Dr Neil Stanley, sleep expert at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, says, "There seems to be a strong link between lack of sleep and putting on weight."

What can I do?
Simple: get more sleep. "You feel wonderful when you wake up from a good night's sleep," says Dr Stanley. "In these modern times, we regard sleep as a waste of time. But sleep is central to good physical and mental health." If you have trouble sleeping, get advice in Living with insomnia.

Good manners

In an ideal world, friends and family would encourage you to lose extra weight. In reality, they sometimes push you to eat more high-calorie food. Is it rude not to finish that double helping of chocolate cake at a dinner party? Sometimes it feels that way.

What can I do?
Learn to say "no, thank you" and stick with it. Get used to the idea that it's OK to leave food on your plate. Soon, friends and family will come to respect your decisions.

Portion sizes

Over the last few decades, the size of portions served in restaurants and supermarket packages has increased. A study by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found that burgers, for example, have doubled in size since 1980. Not surprisingly, research shows that when we're given a larger portion we tend to eat more.

What can I do?
Coping with larger portion sizes is a matter of stopping when you feel full. Eat slowly and you'll have a better chance of avoiding that over-stuffed feeling. At home, serve yourself a smaller portion and think about whether you really want a second helping. Avoid supersizing portions when eating out. You can control portion size and save money when you cook fresh, healthy meals at home.

Page last reviewed: 19/10/2013

Next review due: 19/10/2015


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

christine0564 said on 27 March 2014

My sister is obese. She has a heart condition as well, because of being overweight. Everybody tells her to start losing some weight, but she always say "tomorrow". For me is amazing how for example Queen Latifah could do it so easy. It is probably more about will, than anything. Somehow like quitting smoking - you always say tomorrow.
I am afraid for my sister, she has a high blood pressure as well. I don't know what could I do to help her?

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Daily routine said on 04 February 2014

I tried to see if I can improve my diet or exercise in any way. I think that I am eating fairly healthy, but there is no advice on exercise, or would that matter? Let me explain

Everyone complains about not having time to exercise or cook the food that is good for them, or being able to afford it.

I reviewed what I do on a day to day basis, to see what time I had to fit in what I should do, The problem is with daily life in todays society.

Its hard for anyone to have a healthy lifestyle if you have a family or are in a relationship, particularly in winter and especially if you have a full time job too.

Here is a breakdown I feel that may show a typical working day for a typical person ....

There are extra duties I feel that could be added or ammended on this list to apply to you.

8.0 sleep
1.0 getting ready - shower dress etc
2.0 travelling to work appointments or to see friends etc
7.5 work
0.5 lunch at work
2.0 preparing and eating breakfast, lunch, tea etc
1.0 housework, sorting mail bills reading emails home admin tasks etc
1.0 shopping for food and essentials
1.0 personal issues / helping family friends
0.5 checking daily news
1.0 study / personal development - non exercise
2.0 spending time with partner / family kids / friends or receiving / returning telephone calls

It goes over the 24 hours a day, yet we have to fit this all in on a day to day basis more or less, and doesn't include time for exercise (if you have the time/energy).
You also don't have time to rationally think for yourself.

I would walk to work, but do I have the time to? And can I cope with being hot and sweaty as a result.? Thats before getting battered by our weather (UK).

Is it safe to go to a park in the dark when you finish work if you don't believe in germ spreading gyms.

We have things that we have to do daily, and its true that we all cut corners to be able to live at all.
Do we really have the time and means to live right at all?

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User60842 said on 07 November 2008

There's also evidence to suggest that weight gain is caused by eating faster, because as well as perhaps shovelling in more food, our brains don't have enough time to register when we're full.

Seeing as it takes a full 20 minutes for our stomach to tell our brains that we're full up, it's not surprising people overeat!

There's an article on it at the following address... http://www.foodeu.com/articles/Eat+Fast+Gain+Weight.aspx

Hope this is useful!

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