One of the biggest healthy-living buzzkills out there is the surprising weight gain that comes along with a plateau. If your skinny jeans fit just a couple of months ago, and you haven’t done anything differently, what gives? You eat healthy foods, stay loyal to your workouts or spin class and drink plenty of water, but the pounds have crept onto your frame.
While you exercise and eat-right efforts are still super important for you to achieve flat belly success, there are a number of things that can cause your waistline to expand—many of which are downright sneaky or out of your control. But don’t panic! To help you kick pesky pudge to the curb, I uncovered some of the top flat belly saboteurs and asked experts how to overcome each …so you can get back to your slimmer self.
Your Thyroid is Sluggish
The thyroid, a gland in the neck that sits above the Adam’s apple, regulates a wide range of bodily functions including metabolism. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons, your thyroid may become under-active and result in a condition called hypothyroidism. One of the many symptoms of the condition? You guessed it, weight gain. The worst part is that the condition often develops slowly, so many people don’t notice the symptoms of the disease until they’re full blown, says The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. It gets worse: If a thyroid issue is to blame for your weight gain, it doesn’t matter how diligently your dieting and working out; it will be near impossible to shed the pounds.
Do This!: Take a trip to the MD. “If you’ve suddenly put on weight for no apparent reason, I suggest you see a doctor so a medical professional can decide whether it is a thyroid issue or another cause,” says Biggest Loser dietitian Cheryl Forberg.
You Overeat Healthy Foods
When losing your love handles is the goal, portion size is just as important as eating healthy. The reason: Many nutritious foods—like avocados, oatmeal, quinoa, dark chocolate, nuts and nut butters—can lead to weight gain when eaten in excess.
Do This!: Unless it’s a fruit or a vegetable, don’t make the assumption that the healthy food you’re eating is low in calories. Next time you’re whipping up a meal, remember these three portion control cues: 1.) A helping of nut butter or shredded cheese should be no larger than a ping-pong ball; 2.) a true serving of rice and pasta is about the size of your fist; and 3.) lean meats should be about the size of a deck of cards. Sticking to the recommended serving size can help zap away excess pounds.
Earlier this year, a University of Birmingham study found that drinking two cups of water before each meal could significantly accelerate weight loss. So it should come as no surprise that not drinking enough H20 can have the opposite effect on your waistline. “Not only does water give us energy and help maintain body temperature, but it also helps us feel more full,” says Forberg. “Not drinking enough water can cause us to eat excess calories that could lead to weight gain. Plus, when you’re dehydrated, the body will conserve water for vital body functions, which can result in water retention and a higher number on the scale.”
Do This!: Keep hydration and pounds at bay by sipping continuously throughout the day. And when your taste buds finally tire of plain H2O, whip up a tasty detox water.
…and you’re taking medication to treat it. “As many as 25 percent of people taking certain antidepressants report gaining ten pounds or more,” says Alissa Rumsey, Registered Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Some medications may cause food cravings, especially for carbohydrates, and some find that their medication increases their appetite. The drugs may affect metabolism negatively as well.” And since depression is often accompanied by a disinterest in food, another pool of thought is that once antidepressants become effective, people regain their appetites and overeat.
Do This!: “Switching medications can often help since certain types are more apt to cause weight gain than others. However, if you change medications, it may not aid your depression as effectively. It can be a lot of trial and error,” adds Rumsey.
You Avoid the Scale
Of all the little white lies, the expression “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” is one of the worst, regarding weight loss. However, when we’re talking about weight gain, ignorance could be the very reason behind your ever-tightening waistband. “When you avoid the scale because you don’t want to know the number, that’s when you get into trouble. This is especially true in the winter months, when we’re more apt to indulge in comfort food and cover ourselves with bulky sweaters,” says registered dietitian Christine M. Palumbo.
Do This!: If you want to shed the extra poundage, you’ve got to lay off the treats, increase your activity throughout the day and hop on a scale at least once a week—if not two or three, to monitor your progress. “I recommend weighing in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” says Palumbo. “If Monday is a bit higher than usual, all the better for getting back on track for the upcoming week. And Friday is good because if you’re a bit on the high side then, well, it’s all the more incentive to stay-the-course for the weekend and not go too crazy.”
You’re Obsessed with Spinning
There’s no denying that working out is an important weight loss factor, but oddly enough, thinking about your upcoming sweat sessions too often can make it more difficult to lose weight. Research indicates that when your favorite spin class is always on the brain, you are apt to consume more calories—likely because you assume you’ll just blast it away during the hill and sprint sections of your class. And sadly, for the average gym rat or spin-devotee, this is hardly ever the case.
Do This!: Set it and forget it! At the beginning of each month, sit down with your iCal and plan out your workouts for the next month. This way you aren’t constantly thinking about your post-work gym sessions; you can just reference your calendar and go. To fuel your weight loss further, avoid excessive noshing and pick up some of these pre-workout snacks tailored to your fitness routine.
You Don’t Check Yourself Out
Do This!: Next time you’re at the grocery store, head to the self-checkout line. Switching up your routine may just be your ticket to slim-down success.
You Stay Up Late
You eat right and exercise but, sadly, nearly all of your efforts are negated if you’re staying up all night catching up on ‘Empire.’ A study in the Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care journal states that shorter amounts of sleep are associated with higher BMI levels and larger waistlines. The primary reason? “Lack of sleep can lead to increased levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, and decreased levels of leptin, the satiety hormone,” explains Rumsey. “Research also shows that when we’re sleep-deprived, our brains respond more strongly to junk food and have less of an ability to practice portion control.”
Do This!: Rumsey assures us that after a week or two of adequate sleep—which she defines as seven to eight hours per evening—the surge of hunger and cravings should subside.
Your Job Is Really Stressful
We don’t mean suggest that you pass the buck, but your demanding boss may be to blame for your expanding waistline. “The hormone cortisol is released when our body is under stress that causes triglycerides to be relocated to visceral fat cells, increasing storage of belly fat,” explains Rumsey. “Elevated cortisol levels also cause an increase in blood glucose, while suppressing the effects of insulin, leading to constant feelings of hunger and can lead to overeating. To make matters worse, all of that unused blood glucose is eventually stored as body fat.”
Do This!: Discuss your workload with your manager. Alternatively, come into the office early when no one is around to bug you. This will allow you to get a head start on the day’s assignments without your Chatty Cathy cubical neighbor annoying you.
You Ignore Sodium
From our packaged snacks to the food we order in restaurants, the modern American diet is saltier than Amy Schumer’s pillow talk—and it’s making our bellies bloat! And when you retain water in your gut, it can make your pants snug and tip the scale, as if you’ve gained weight overnight—when it’s just water weight. As Palumbo says, “sodium-related weight gain is easy come, easy go.”
Do This!: Up your water intake and cut back on the sodium. Cooking more at home with fresh herbs instead of salt should help your belly deflate in a day or so. Dining out? Scan nutrition info at home before you head out and pick a healthy restaurant dish with about 1,000 milligrams of sodium or less.
You Don’t Eat Enough Protein
Consuming enough protein is important for two reasons: Since it digests more slowly than refined carbohydrates, it’s satiating and staves off overeating. It also helps maintain lean muscle mass. “If you aren’t consuming enough protein to keep your muscles and cells healthy, the body ends up breaking down muscle to access the nutrients it needs—and this spells trouble. Less muscle mass means a slower metabolism, which over time, can cause weight gain,” explains Rumsey.
Do This!: To keep your metabolism going strong, stock your kitchen with lean proteins such as chicken breast, turkey, and organic tofu.
You Don’t Toss Temptation
“Whether it’s ice cream, cookies, chips or other items, just knowing that your trigger foods are in the kitchen or your office desk can derail your healthy eating program,” says Palumbo. “This is especially true between 3 p.m. and bedtime when cravings tend the be the most difficult to ignore.”
Do This!: One of the best ways to overcome a passing craving is to keep the foods you know you can’t deny out of the house. Can’t imagine kicking your favorite cookies out of the house for good? Individually portion off the foods you tend to overeat. If you know each Ziploc bag of chips is 150 calories, you’ll be less likely to go back for a second serving.
You Never Indulge
If every time you have a cookie craving you buy a low-fat package, you may be doing your body a disservice—sounds counterintuitive, we know. When food manufacturers trim the fat, they often pump their snacks full of sugar and additives that can leave you feeling unsatisfied and craving more—not what you want if you’re trying to reverse recent weight gain.
Do This!: To get back to a trimmer version of you, eat the real thing, but downsize your portion. If you love ice cream, for example, skip the fro-yo and have a small scoop of premium.
You’re Taking Medication
From beta-blockers to birth control pills, and everything in between, there’s a long, long list of medications that can cause your waistline to bulge. And if you think your Rx is to blame for your ever-expanding waistline, you’re not alone. “Weight issues are often a primary reason for non-compliance with treatment,” Palumbo tells us. “Some drugs stimulate the appetite or slow the body’s metabolism. Others cause fluid retention or enough drowsiness to reduce physical activity, which can trigger weight gain.”
Do This!: This is important, so listen up: “If you suspect your drug is causing weight gain, never stop taking it. Instead, make an appointment with your healthcare provider and ask if there might be an equally effective alternative that doesn’t affect your weight. Everyone reacts to medications differently, so trying something else may help,” says Palumbo.
You Use a Shopping Basket
Sure, you only need to pick up a few things, but that doesn’t mean you should grab the little basket instead of the cart. In fact, lugging a heavy load of groceries around the store may make you less likely to pick out the best items for a flat belly, found a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research. The researchers explain that the strain of carrying a basket makes shoppers more likely to reach for quick-grab impulse items—like cookies, crackers, and chips.
Do This!: To help the pounds come off stress-free, grab healthy snacks instead.
“Musculoskeletal conditions that cause pain can lead to a decrease in physical activity, which can cause weight gain over time—especially if you are eating the same amount that you were eating when you were more active,” says Rumsey.
Do This!: People don’t often want to exercise when their joints are hurting, but exercise can ease some arthritis symptoms. “Low impact activities like walking or riding a stationary bike are easier on joints, as is swimming and water aerobics,” she says. “Working in some strength training exercises with light weights or therapeutic bands can help to improve joint stability and also help counteract weight gain.”
You Eat Too Healthy
“When my clients feel like they aren’t able to enjoy something indulgent from time to time, it often leaves them with hard-to-ignore cravings,” says registered dietitian Leah Kaufman “For this reason, I allow my patients to eat 100 discretionary calories each day. It allows them to satisfy their cravings without falling off track.” Nine Peanut M&Ms, 12 gummy bears, and a single Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup all come in right around 100 calories.