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Surprising reasons why you could be gaining weight

Nutritionist Bronwen King shares some of the less obvious reasons for weight gain — and what you can do about it.

Are you finding that despite best efforts to eat well and exercise your clothes are getting tighter? Are you heavier now than you used to be but can’t work out why? Instead of resigning yourself to a slow metabolism, you may be surprised to learn that there are many less obvious reasons for gaining weight.

We are now realising that weight maintenance is far more complex that just what we eat and how much we exercise, and that how we eat and live our lives can impact on our ability to store fat. Factors such as eating too fast, sitting too much, not having enough sleep and too much stress can promote fat storage despite a healthy diet.

If you have all but given up, these tips may help. Imagine how wonderful it would be if you could kick start weight-loss with a couple of simple changes!

People say “I just had a muffin” or “I just had a bowl of cereal”. Research shows there can be huge variation in what people consider a normal portion. And as portion sizes increase, the greater the margin of error.

Imagine half a cup of muesli in a bowl. Most of us would be able to estimate how much this was within a quarter-cup margin at most. But if there were three cups of muesli in the bowl, the estimates could vary from between two and four cups, ie. the estimate could be out by as much as a cup! Interestingly, we relate to the number of portions rather than the size of the portion.

In the 1970s, fast food portion sizes were small. The rationale was that if people wanted more, they could order a second portion. This did not happen however, as people felt greedy having two serves. When the serve size increased, the same people did not hesitate to order the bigger portion, even though it may have been twice the size of the smaller serve.

Tips to get a real sense of portion size

  • Use small bowls or plates to maintain healthier portion sizes.
  • Try weighing or measuring your actual portion and comparing to recommended portions. For example, a standard portion of cooked rice is one cup. Could yours be more than a standard serve?
  • Cut muffins, slices and cake portions in half and share/put away the other half. Add some fruit to bulk out and eat with a teaspoon. This will help you get the same pleasure (or more) from less.

It takes 20 minutes for the body to register fullness when eating. If you eat fast, you’re likely to eat more than you need before messages to stop eating click in.

A recent study by Otago University found that middle-aged women who eat slowly are much less likely to be overweight or obese than those who eat at a faster pace. Study principal investigator Dr Caroline Horwath says that after adjusting for other factors including age, ethnicity, smoking, physical activity and menopause status, the researchers found that the faster women reported their eating speed to be, the higher their body mass index (BMI). If you are usually the first to finish a meal, it may be time to take stock of your eating speed.

Tips to slow down

  • Thorough chewing helps fullness and has other benefits. Digestive enzymes in saliva begin their work in the mouth so allowing time for these to work aids digestion further down the tract. If you often feel bloated or uncomfortable after a meal, not chewing enough could be part of the cause.
  • Sit down to eat. Focus on the tastes and textures in your mouth.
  • Chew food until it is liquid in the mouth. There are no taste buds in your stomach so swallowing too early is a ‘waste of taste’.
  • Lay cutlery down between mouthfuls.
  • Do not load food onto your fork until you have swallowed your current mouthful.

3. You do the ‘Jamie drizzle’

Jamie Oliver is a wonderful advocate and passionate crusader for healthy eating, but his liberal use of olive oil has me alarmed. A little olive oil is good for heart health, but too much puts a huge kilojoule load on a dish. Given that each 15ml tablespoon has over 500 kilojoules, even a healthy salad could end up contributing to weight gain if masses of oil is used!

Tips to use less oil

  •  Each time you use oil, use the minimum amount. Remember: one 15ml tablespoon delivers more kilojoules than one-quarter of a round of camembert cheese.
  • Write the date on your bottle of oil to see how long it lasts. Divide by the number of people in your household and the number of days it lasts to get a rough oil intake per person per day. You may be surprised!
  • Transfer your oil into a pump spray bottle to make it easy to control the amount you use.
  • Forget the traditional three parts oil to one part vinegar traditional dressing: use two parts acid (lemon juice or vinegar or a mix) to one part oil.

4. You’re a mayonnaise or 2-minute noodle addict

A colleague of mine was concerned she was not losing weight despite eating what she thought was a lower-kilojoule diet. While we were in the supermarket one day she pointed out her favourite mayonnaise. She was ‘addicted’ to it and ate two heaped tablespoons of it each day with her breakfast toast. She was horrified to learn that this delivered over 1200kJ, around the same as in two cups of a low-fat plain yoghurt.

She always thought that because mayonnaise did not look or taste fatty, the quantity she ate was not important. Some 2-minute noodles are similar; while having all the taste and appearance of regular noodles, they contain as much as 20 per cent fat. This ‘invisible fat’ in crackers and lots of baked goods can really up the kilojoules.

Tips to break an addiction

  • Choose light mayonnaise; dilute regular mayonnaise with plain yoghurt; or even substitute with a low-fat yoghurt. Use higher kilojoule options sparingly.
  • Choose low-energy versions of instant noodles and crackers.
  • Avoid nasty surprises by reading labels and comparing similar products.
  • Check the kilojoules in the amount you’re actually eating, not just what the label calls a serve.

The ‘six small meals a day’ theory is fine, but unless you are very disciplined and have amazing planning skills, grazing rather than having ‘three meals a day’ can be a real trap. Firstly, we tend to eat less healthy food when snacking or grazing than for meals (snack foods are often kilojoule-dense and nutrient- poor). Secondly, it is much harder to recall food that is eaten randomly than that eaten as part of a meal. If you are asked what you ate yesterday, the chances are you can remember what you had for breakfast and lunch but not the children’s crusts, the nuts you had with a drink, or the chocolate bar you had at work.

Tips to eat regularly

  • Take stock of the way you eat: set a regular eating pattern and stick to this as best you can.
  • Sit down to eat and put food on a plate. This way you are more likely to register what you have eaten.
  • Keep a food diary for a few days — this will help you recognise when, what and how you eat.

Stress can be sudden — from a fright or dangerous situation — or chronic, from ongoing worries such as unemployment or relationship issues.

The body reacts to stress by releasing hormones: adrenaline for ‘fight or flight’ situations where the body has to get itself out of danger fast, and cortisol for long-term stress. These hormones are designed to help the body survive and one of the mechanisms for doing this is to encourage and maintain fat storage. Put simply, stress can make you better at storing fat — a backup energy source to assist your survival.

Tips for less stress

  • Practise deep breathing. Since shallow breathing is associated with stress, deep breathing tells the body it does not need stress hormones. Schedule it in to your day so you get into a routine.
  • Try yoga, pilates or meditation. Regular relaxation for the mind is as important as relaxation for the body.
  • Find exercise that you enjoy and do it regularly. As well as helping sleep, it helps lift mood.

For years scientists have suspected that skimping on sleep is associated with weight gain. Studies are now showing that sleeping fewer than seven hours a night corresponds with a greater risk of weight gain and obesity, and this risk increases for every hour of lost sleep. Some put the blame on hormones: lack of sleep causes an increase in ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and a reduction in leptin, a hormone that indicates satiety. The bottom line here is that losing sleep may increase appetite and, as a result increase weight.

Tips for better sleep

  • Stick to a regular routine. Get up and go to bed around the same time each day.
  • Avoid bright flickering light in the bedroom such as fluorescent digital alarm clocks.
  • Keep your bedroom cool and ensure your bedcovers keep you at a comfortable temperature. Thick duvets may be too hot and this may cause you to wake.
  • Watch caffeine intake, particularly later in the day.

You’re using the wrong colour plate

A recent study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found the contrast between the colour of the plate and the colour of the food has quite an impact on our consumption. If the food is a similar colour to the plate, people will serve and eat about 22 per cent more than if the colours of the food and plate contrast.

Your plates are too big

More research by Brian Wansink’s team shows that if you choose a larger plate, you will almost certainly eat more, even when you are trying not to.

Your glasses are the wrong shape

A short, fat glass tricks your brain into over-serving your drinks. If you use a tall, thin glass, you will serve and drink less.

You’re distracted

Eating while watching TV, listening to the radio or using the computer almost certainly means you will eat more.

You feel guilty about what you’re eating

Often, if we feel like we ‘shouldn’t’ eat something, we wolf it down in a hurry. Instead, try embracing your ‘danger’ foods: eat them slowly, savouring the flavour, texture and aroma and feeling the pleasure of eating. Give yourself permission to enjoy your food and you will be far less likely to overeat.

Perhaps this is not so surprising. But almost all of us eat more than we think we do. Brian Wansink in his book Mindless Eating shows that even people of normal weight underestimate food intake by around 20 per cent and that people who are above a healthy weight can underestimate by over 50 per cent. He describes the gap between what you think you eat and what you actually eat as the ‘mindless margin’ and shows through his experiments why we can easily be fooled into eating more than we need or believe we have eaten. You probably know people who ‘eat like a sparrow’ yet lament their weight. In most instances they are not consciously overeating or underreporting. There are many circumstances that conspire against their being able to recall their food intake accurately.

Updated May 2018

Date modified: May 23 2018
First published: Jul 2012

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