#128 The Top 10 Causes of Weight Gain

October 25th, 2015 by

The Top 10 Causes of Weight Gain

The average American gains 1 to 2 pounds a year.  That is as little as 10 extra calories a day–less than one bite of food.  This weight gain is so subtle that most people don’t even know it is happening until one day they tune in and discover that they have gained 20 to 30 pounds since high school.

The famous 5th century B.C. Chinese General, Sun Zi, said in the book The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and yourself, you need not fear…If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will lose every battle.”

In this article, I am going to help you better know the enemy and share with you the top 10 causes of weight gain.  It is only by knowing the enemy and yourself that you can enjoy the weight that works best for you.

My High School Weight

While not especially lean, I weighed a respectable 180 pounds in high school.  My first year away at college, rather than “The Freshman 15,” I actually added “The Freshman 25” and hit a peak weight of 205 pounds during my first nine months away from home.

Fortunately, I started exercising again after my freshman year of college, which helped prevent further weight gain. However, it did not allow me to lose all of the weight I had gained.  I carried that extra weight around for two more decades until my 40s when I was forced to change my diet and lifestyle due to other health problems.

The Best Study on Weight Gain

To better know the enemy, most of the scientific data I am going to share with you is from a seminal Harvard study published in the most prestigious medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine.  This study involved 120,877 U.S. men and women and the lead author was my former classmate, and fellow cardiologist, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian.

What surprised me most about this Harvard study was that it wasn’t just one thing that cause people to gain weight.  Rather, it was a cluster of bad habits and lifestyle choices that led to 1 or 2 extra pounds each year.  Unfortunately, as the weight goes up so do chronic medical problems as well as the need to take lifelong medications and make appointments with the cardiologist or other doctors.

I should also point out that these top 10 causes of weight gain have also been seen in other studies.  Also, the Harvard study did not show causation but rather correlation.  In other words, weight gain was observed to happen in people who reported doing these 10 things–whether or not this was the actual cause of their weight gain cannot be determined from this Harvard study.

The Top 10 Causes of Weight Gain

1. Can’t Find Time to Exercise: 0.44 pounds/year (0.2 kg/yr)

It should come as no surprise that not exercising was the number one cause of weight gain.  While a weight gain of just 0.44 pounds per year (0.2 kg/yr) may not sound like too much of a price to pay for not exercising, this adds up to a total weight gain of 21 pounds (9.4 kg) from high school to retirement at age 65.

While many people mistakingly feel that you can exercise off a bad diet, the research just doesn’t support this.  Exercise is for maintaining not losing weight.  Even during my marathon running years, when I was running 20 or more miles a day, I never seemed to burn off the extra weight I gained from my freshman year of college.

2. French Fries and Potato Chips: 0.42 pounds/year (0.19 kg/yr)

The number two cause of weight gain caught me by surprise.  While I knew French fries and potato chips caused people to gain weight, I would never have predicted that this effect would be stronger than sugary drinks.

Even more surprising was that the average person in this study only ate French fries or potato chips one time per week at most.  I suspect the reason why fries and chips are so dangerous to your waistline is because these processed potatoes are instantly converted to sugar in the body, they contain high amounts of unhealthy oils, and the same people who eat fries are more likely to eat other junk food as well.

As with a lack of exercise, this gradual weight gain from fries and chips, on average, adds up to a grand total of 20 extra pounds (9.1 kg) by retirement.

3. Trans Fat from Processed and Fried Foods: 0.36 pounds/year (0.16 kg/yr)

Number three in this Harvard study also came as a surprise to me.  While I was well aware of the ultra artery clogging effects of trans fat, I had no idea this toxic fat also causes people to pack on the weight.

When it comes to trans fat in the diet, most of my patients mistakingly believe this is no longer a problem as all of their packaged food labels read “zero” for trans fat.  What they don’t understand is that, based on lax reporting guidelines, processed food companies can create such unrealistically small portion sizes so that the trans fat content in a “microscopic serving” is below the required reporting level of 0.5 grams.

To keep your arteries clean and your weight in check, if you see “partially hydrogenated oil” anywhere on the ingredient list then this is something that you should never eat.  When it comes to trans fat, there is no safe amount you can eat.

In addition to processed foods, the worst trans fat offenders are fried foods, microwave popcorn, and store bought bakery items.  If you give in and eat processed or fried foods you can count on gaining an average of 17 pounds (7.7 kg) and a likely visit to a cardiologist by retirement age.

4. Sugary Drinks: 0.25 pounds/year (0.11 kg/yr)

While falling much lower on this list than I would have expected, sugary drinks are still an important cause of weight gain.  In addition to sugary drinks, other forms of sugar like desserts, refined grains, and fruit juice combined also added up to an additional 0.25 pounds/year (0.11 kg/yr).  By refined grains, I am referring to the typical grocery store breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, etc.

Thus, if you do sugary drinks, desserts, refined grains, and fruit juice you can expect to gain 0.5 pounds/yr (0.22 kg/year) from your sweet tooth–an even greater effect than not exercising.

It is interesting that fruit juice did not cause as much weight gain as sugar sweetened beverages like Gatorade or soda pop.  The lead author of the Harvard study, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, was also surprised and explained that the reason was likely because they found that most people seem to drink sugary beverages in much greater quantities than fruit juice.

Once again, it did not take much to increase weight.  The average person in this study only had a little more than 1 sugary drink per week and 1.3 servings of dessert and 1.2 servings of refined grains each day.

Regardless, doing all forms of sugar namely sugary drinks, desserts, refined grains, and fruit juice, even in very small amounts, can add up to a hefty 23.5 pound (10.7 kg) average weight gain by retirement.

5. Red Meat: 0.24 pounds/year (0.11 kg/yr)

For those who follow a dietary regimen that advocates meat, I’m sure the number five cause of weight gain in the Harvard study comes as a surprise.  I should point out that all meats are not raised and processed equally, and that most of the 120 thousand plus people in this study were eating the typical grocery store or prepared forms of meat which come from antibiotic and hormone treated animals.

Equally as strong as red meat for weight gain in this study were processed meats.  By processed meats I mean meats like bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and deli meats.  If you eat processed meats you can expect to gain an additional 0.23 pounds each year.  Thus, eating both red and processed meats will cause you to gain, on average, 0.47 pounds per year or 22 pounds (10 kg) by retirement.

I should point out that the people in this study did not eat much red or processed meats.  Indeed, the average person had less than one serving daily of red and processed meats combined.

If you are a meat eater, and don’t want to gain weight, then the Harvard study would suggest giving up red meats as well as processed meats and instead focus on poultry or fish.

6. Stress: 0.15 pounds/year (0.07 kg/yr)

Most of us also know that we naturally crave junk food when we are feeling stressed.  Stress causes changes to the hormones that regulate hunger.  According to the study I use to calculate the damage from stress, you can also count on gaining an average of 7 extra pounds (3.2 kg) if you are under a lot of stress.

7. Sleep Deprivation, 0.14 pounds/year (0.06 kg/yr)

Most people intuitively know that they also crave junk food when they are tired.  I know this is a weakness of mine after I have been up all night in the hospital taking care of patients.  Sleep deprivation is a well known cause of activating our hunger hormones in a way that causes weight gain.

What most people don’t understand is that when it comes to weight gain, over sleeping seems to be just as dangerous as under sleeping.  In a separate study I use to calculate the weight gain risks associated with sleep duration, it shows that sleeping under 5 hours or over 9 hours a night puts you at risk of weight gain.

Based on these definitions, if you under or over sleep you can count on gaining an average 7 extra pounds (3.5 kg) from high school to retirement.

8. Butter: 0.12 pounds/year (0.05 kg/yr)

In the 1980s and 90s a, few people would have been surprised to see butter on this list.  Yes, it is true that butter is much healthier for you than the trans fat containing products, like margarine, from the 1980s and 1990s.

While butter made the top 10 based on the data from the Harvard study, I should point out that dairy had mixed effects when it came to weight gain or loss over time.  For example, the Harvard study showed that cheese also caused weight gain but milk was neutral and yogurt even caused significant weight loss over time.

Thus, the type of dairy seems to be important in determining whether or not you gain or lose weight with dairy.  For the worst dairy offender, butter, it can cause you to gain an average of 6 pounds (2.7 kg) from high school to retirement.

9. Alcohol: 0.1 pounds/year (0.05 kg/yr)

As with dairy, the data on alcohol and weight gain are mixed.  Heavy beer drinkers seem to show the highest weight gains from alcohol.  In the Harvard study, alcohol drinkers can expect to gain an average 0.1 pounds per year or 5 pounds (2.3 kg) by retirement.

10. Electronic Devices: 0.08 pounds/year (0.04 kg/yr)

Rounding out the top 10 list are electronic devices. When this Harvard study looked at television watchers, they found that just 36 minutes a day contributes to an average four extra pounds (1.7 kg) by retirement.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, the scientifically proven 10 best ways to gain weight as an adult.  When it comes to changing any bad habit, the first step is awareness.

As the 5th century B.C. famous Chinese general, Sun Zi taught us in The Art of War, the key to wining any battle is to know the enemy and yourself.  Now that we have identified our top 10 enemies in weight gain, it is time to become aware and create an environment that helps us to conquer these enemies.

What is your number one weight gain enemy?  What has helped you to battle this enemy?

#057 How to End Insomnia and Weight Gain

December 27th, 2014 by

How to End Insomnia and Weight Gain

Do you suffer from fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, brain fog, high cholesterol, or a raging appetite?  If so, there is a good chance you are one of 70 million Americans who also have difficulties sleeping.

Could the dramatically rising rates of sleep deprivation over the last 50 years be responsible for why most people are gaining weight?

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

A recently published study showed that sleeping an average of just 5.7 hours a night for one week changed the expression of 711 genes in the body!  Many of these genes are the very same genes that cause obesity, heart disease, and dementia.  Is it any wonder that insomniacs are 55% more likely to die from heart disease.

Even as little as one night of severe sleep deprivation can cause the same injury to the brain as a concussion. If you are part of the 10% of Americans who even occasionally take a sleeping pill like Benadryl or an antihistamine, your risk of premature death is 3 times higher!

My Struggles

I have battled with insomnia for most of my adult life.  It started in college and has been with me ever since.  I suspect much of my battles with insomnia are due to stress, travel, and disrupted sleep from being on call for the hospital at night.

I have found that when I am sleep deprived from stress, travel, or being on call for my hospital that I tend to have a ravenous appetite.  In a previous blog post, I shared my 10 strategies to better sleep.

The topic of this article is how can we channel our increased appetite from sleep deprivation into better sleep?  In other words, how can we eat our way to better sleep and weight loss?

How a Lack of Sleep Changes Our Hormones and Metabolism

1. It Increases the Stress Hormones (Cortisol and Adrenalin)

When we are sleep deprived it increases our stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin.  With regards to weight gain, cortisol is particularly troublesome.  As anyone who has ever taken cortisol, in the form of Prednisone or a short course of steroids, will tell you that while they took this drug their appetite was intense and they gained weight.

2. It Increases the Hunger Hormones (Low Leptin and High Ghrelin)

Have you ever felt yourself craving sugar after a bad night of sleep?  Why is this the case?

When we are sleep deprived our leptin levels are low and our ghrelin levels are high.  Leptin is the hunger hormone that tells our brain we are full.  Ghrelin is the hunger hormone that tells us it is time to eat.

When these hormones are particularly out of sync, we tend to crave the high sugar and fatty foods.  Unfortunately, the fatty foods we tend to crave in this hormonally disrupted state are the unhealthy fats like those found in french fries or processed foods.

With low levels of leptin our brains never get the signal we are full.  Likewise, with surging levels of ghrelin we feel compelled to eat even when we have already eaten.

3. It Raises Our Blood Sugar

Our blood sugar levels tend to be high when we are sleep deprived.  There are many reasons why this happens.  Some of these include the decreased use of glucose by the brain, insulin resistance, and from the high levels of cortisol.

When our blood sugars run high, the body compensates by releasing more insulin.  Insulin not only can stimulate hunger, as any diabetic quickly finds out when they start taking insulin shots, but it also drops blood glucose.  When our blood sugar levels bottom out from insulin it triggers the hunger hormones which again tell us we are hungry and it is time to eat.

How to End Insomnia and Weight Gain in 7 Steps

As we have now covered how sleep deprivation changes our hormones and metabolism to eat more, I now want to discuss how we can reverse this process.  Yes, it is very possible to channel our increased appetite from sleep deprivation into eating our way to better sleep and weight loss.  Here are my best 7 strategies to end insomnia and weight gain.

1. Shut the Kitchen Down at 7 pm

Eating late at night not only leads to weight gain but compromised sleep as well.  Indeed, in this study researchers found that late night eaters had worse sleep quality.

Late night eating is an important cause of acid reflux.  Acid reflux is a well-known cause of poor sleep at night.  Even if you don’t get the typical chest pain that often comes from acid reflux it can still disrupt your sleep.

In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that intermittent fasting or time restricted feeding can reverse obesity.  In this recently published study in mice, researchers found that just by timing when mice ate determined whether they were lean or obese even though they ate the same number of calories.

The best way to make intermittent fasting or time restricted feeding work for you is to stop eating early in the evening.  By the time breakfast arrives, at least 12 hours will have passed and you will have accomplished intermittent fasting or time restricted feeding without even trying!

2. Have “Tryptophan Nuts and Seeds” for Dinner

Have you ever felt tired after a big turkey dinner at Thanksgiving?  Odds are that the sleepiness was due to high levels of tryptophan from the turkey.  Tryptophan is a sleep promoting amino acid that helps your body to produce melatonin.

Nuts and seeds are the perfect dinner time food for sleep and weight loss.  They are packed full of protein, healthy fats, and fiber which means they will keep you full until morning so you won’t be tempted for a bedtime snack.

In addition to the perfect trifecta to staying full (protein, fat, fiber), the tryptophan nuts and seeds will help to put you to sleep.  The nuts and seeds high in tryptophan include walnuts, cashews, and sesame seeds.

3. Eat a High Magnesium Dinner

Magnesium is a mineral that 60% of Americans are deficient in.  Magnesium relaxes muscles and our nervous system.  Magnesium has even been shown in clinical trials to improve sleep.

Some excellent choices to increase your magnesium levels would be pumpkin seeds, spinach, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, or pecans.  Not only will more magnesium help to improve your sleep but  it can also help with anxiety.  Anxiety robs many of my patients from blissful sleep.  To learn more about the many health benefits of magnesium, here is a link to an article I wrote on magnesium.

4. Have “Lettuce Opium” for Dinner

From as far back as the ancient Egyptians, the milky fluid part of lettuce has long been known to produce opium like effects.  Not only does lettuce taste great in a salad but it can also reduce pain and promote sleep.  This is especially helpful as I have found that so many of my patients are kept up at night from chronic pain.

Studies have now been done to prove what humans have known for thousands of years, namely that lettuce has sleep inducing qualities.

5. Eat a High Calcium Dinner

Like magnesium, calcium also relaxes muscles and the nervous system.  Although the data are somewhat limited, there is some evidence that calcium with magnesium may help to promote sleep.  In addition, calcium can help the brain to better utilize tryptophan in the production of melatonin.

While dairy is certainly a good choice for obtaining calcium, often overlooked options for calcium include tofu, sardines, sesame seeds, spinach, or kale.  To learn more about what foods contain calcium here is a good link.

6. Eat Vitamin B6 Foods for Dinner

Vitamin B6 plays many different roles in the body.  One of these include regulation of tryptophan and serotonin which are important for healthy sleep.

Some excellent foods that are high in vitamin B6 include tuna, salmon, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, spinach, or a banana.  It is best to get vitamin B6 at night from foods rather than supplements as vitamin B6 supplements taken at night may cause vivid dreams.  When you are sleep deprived state the last thing in the world you want is to be awakened from an intense dream.

7. Eat Cherries to Boost Melatonin

In one study, cherry juice was shown to boost natural melatonin levels and improve sleep quality.  While drinking your calories is not a good option for weight loss, the same sleep promoting benefit could be obtained by eating whole cherries.

Putting it All Together: The Perfect Dinner for Sleep

I realize that I just shared many different strategies to eat your way to better sleep and weight loss.  How do we put it all together?

Let me share with you my perfect dinner for when I need a good night of sleep.  Have the following before 7 pm at night for best results.  This simple dinner will cover all 7 strategies discussed in this article.

Eat a lettuce and spinach salad loaded with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and almonds.  By loading your salad with nuts and seeds it will keep you very full until morning.  For a sleep enhancing dressing try a healthy cherry vinaigrette dressing made with dried tart cherries or a tart cherry juice instead of orange juice in this recipe. Although this recipe does not call for a blender I would suggest using one for the optimal consistency of this dressing.

What do you eat for dinner when you need a good night of sleep?