Gaining Ground on Weight Gain
When weight gain sneaks up, look at it as an opportunity to take control.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
The belt has to go up a notch; your underwear elastic is forming a geometric pattern on your waist; the dryer seems to be shrinking everything. It's weight gain!
And if you're like many folks, the scale can tip as much as 10 pounds before you even realize it's happening.
"Some people gain weight any time there is a change in their normal routine. Whatever they are doing just isn't allowing them to eat the way they did before, so the extra pounds start to creep up," says Susan Kraus, MS, RD, a clinical nutritionist at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
But whether it's the result of overdoing restaurant dinners, a few too many laps around the cruise ship pastry table, or because you've been sidelined with a fitness injury, if you eat more or move less, weight gain will result.
And, experts say, if you don't lose those extra pounds right away, you could be in for an even bigger surprise down the road.
"People wonder how they gained 50 pounds between age 20 and age 50. But if you add just two or three pounds a year, every year -- there are those extra pounds, and you don't even realize how it happened," Kraus tells WebMD.
Another point in favor of catching that weight gain early? The longer you keep it on, the harder it is to take it off.
"The longer you are at a certain weight, the greater chance your body will perceive that weight as normal -- so when you try to diet it's going to perceive that as abnormal and send signals to correct it, like hunger and cravings," says Robert Yanagisawa, MD, director of the Weight Management Program at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
Even if your weight gain doesn't spiral out of control, sometimes adding just five or 10 extra pounds is enough to put your health at risk, Yanagisawa says.
"It all depends on where you are at when you gain the weight," he says. "If your BMI (body mass index) is already high; if you have high blood pressure, or diabetes, for example; if the gain causes a jump in your waist size; then even a small amount of extra weight could jeopardize your health."
Checking Weight Gain: Where to Start
If you've had a break in your normal eating routine -- because of the holiday season or a vacation, for example -- you may only need to return to your previous eating habits to lose the extra weight, Yanagisawa says.
"You may not even have to diet, per se, but if you just start eating like you did before you gained the weight and if you do it right away, you might be able to drop those extra pounds without too much trouble," says Yanagisawa.
At the same time, he cautions, this might not be as easy as it sounds.
"Once you've been overeating for several weeks it's easy to say, 'What's one more cookie or one more piece of chocolate?' When you're in the mindset of eating more, it's easy to keep eating more and not return to how you ate before you gained the weight," he says.
If you find this is the case for you, a more formal diet may be necessary, even for just a few weeks.
"Some people just need the mindset of being on a diet in order to stick with an eating plan," he says.
When choosing a diet, says weight management expert Abby Aronowitz, PhD, look for one that's balanced, but focuses on a lower calorie intake than what you have been eating.
"The most important tool for weight loss isn't the foods you eat, but that you burn up more calories than you have taken in," she says.
Aronowitz suggests taking pen to paper and figuring out how many calories you were eating before you gained the weight, then choosing an eating plan that falls a little below that number.
The Art of Cutting Down
If a formal diet plan is not for you, you can still accomplish your weight goals if you master the subtle art of "cutting down," experts say.
One of the best ways is to reduce your intake of snacks and treats -- the area where most of our empty calories lie, Kraus says.
"You can eat your regular meals, and they can even be hearty meals, but you should cut out or at least cut down on desserts, sweets, and between-meal treats," says Kraus. "And watch the coffee break; it can be a diet-killer."
Just can't give up desserts? Eat everything you were eating before, says Aronowitz. Just don't eat all of it.
"Leave over a few bites of everything on your plate -- or ditch a little before digging in if you feel you want to eat the whole thing," she says.