Here is a list of the obvious and not-so-obvious foods and lifestyle habits that can pack on the pounds. Let’s break it down.
1. Gluten. I write so much about gluten that linking to each post would be excessive, but click here for a recent post about how gluten contributes to weight gain and prevents weight loss. The main issue is that food allergies and sensitivities are on the rise, and gluten intolerance is becoming more common: at least 1 in 30 people reacts to gluten, and most are probably unaware. Gluten intolerance can cause a constellation of symptoms from digestive issues to hormonal problems to acne/eczema, headaches, anxiety/depression, and fatigue, to name a few. Whether or not you have a sensitivity to gluten, everyone benefits from removing it because it forces us to focus on a more plant-based diet with veggies and good sources of protein and fat. There is no nutritive value in gluten, and the inflammation it causes makes it hard to lose weight. Avoid. You’ll feel better, too.
2. Grain-based breakfasts (bran muffins, granola, cereal and milk, pastries, toast with jam, pancakes, waffles, etc). I just explained how gluten can make you fat. Starting off your day with grains can do the same thing. Grains lack protein (you need protein & good fat to keep you feeling full and to stabilize your blood sugar and energy levels); they’re hard to digest; and they can cause a blood sugar crash and fatigue. Are you prone to the 3pm slump? Ditch your cereal for breakfast in favor of an egg/veggie scramble (with a side of raw kraut for probiotics and enzymes for digestion). Grains also contribute to the inflammation that prevents weight gain. Read more here.
3. Chemicals. It’s no secret that our environment is becoming increasingly toxic. But did you know that these toxins can make you fat? Bisphenol A (the toxic compound found in aluminum can liners), dioxins (found in plastic water bottles), phthalates & parabens (found in body care products), and pesticides are not recognizable to the body and cannot be processed, so they are stored in fat cells, disrupting the endocrine system. This means they have the ability to cause major hormonal imbalance and even infertility. These chemicals also interfere with gene signaling, inducing new fat cells to form and simultaneously increasing inflammation (source: http://bit.ly/ei9c7Q). Inflammation prevents weight loss, and toxins stored in fat cells turn off your body’s fat burning mechanism. The body doesn’t want to burn fat that is housing toxins, causing the toxins to be released in the system. Avoid exposure to chemicals in shampoos, cosmetics, perfumes and lotions/body care products (use all natural products or make your own shampoo with apple cider vinegar and baking soda!); buy organic to avoid pesticides; avoid plastics and plastic water bottles (buy stainless steel); and use natural cleaning products in your home.
4. Sugar. This may seem obvious, but back in my teens when I was strictly avoiding fat, I thought it was fat that made you fat, and “low fat” candy was ok. Low fat and fat free foods are often loaded with sugar. Turns out it’s the opposite: sugar makes you fat and (good) fat actually helps weight loss! Sugar raises insulin, a fat storage hormone, and when you consume too much in relation to what you body needs for fuel, it is converted to fatty acids by the liver and stored. Too much sugar also raises cortisol, the stress hormone, which puts your body into fat storage mode. I’m not just talking about refined white sugar, but any simple, refined carb like white bread, juice, soda, bagels, cereal, pretzels, anything containing white flour, etc. “Whole grains” break down into sugars eventually too, which is why grain-based diets can also make you fat. Sugar also disrupts your blood glucose levels, causing energy spikes and dips, leading to cravings and also interfering with fat burning. Avoid white sugar like the plague, and if you must have something sweet, stick to natural sources like raw honey, dates, molasses, or try xyltiol or stevia. 70 percent or higher dark chocolate helps kill cravings, too.
5. Processed/refined foods. Processed foods (anything in a box or with chemical additive/preservatives you can’t pronounce) contain compounds and chemicals your body cannot process, and most are made with white flour and refined grains that break down quickly into sugars. That means you’ll be hungry soon after and likely craving more sugar. Processed foods have addictive qualities because they contain MSG and other additives that stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain, causing binges. Avoid. Eat real food!
6. Eating any food to which you are sensitive. As I mentioned earlier, food sensitivities/allergies are on the rise, and the inflammation caused by consuming these foods can prevent weight loss. The most common food sensitivities are eggs, milk, wheat/gluten, soy, citrus, shellfish, nuts, and even beef. Removing at least gluten, dairy, and soy from your diet can clear up a host of symptoms, make you feel better, and increase productivity and restful sleep. Read my post on food sensitivities and how to determine which foods you may be reacting to here.
7. Lack of sleep. This is one of the most common lifestyle factors people overlook: getting restful sleep. It is so important, because your body perceives lack of sleep as a stressor, raising cortisol levels, which raises blood sugar levels, causing sugar/carb cravings. You need a good 8-9 hours each night. Click here to read about good sleep hygiene: tips on how to get restful sleep.
8. Stress. Stress is the first cause of imbalance and disease. Stress raises cortisol & blood sugar, causing inflammation and putting your body into fat storage mode. Stress also prevents good sleep! It’s all connected. Stress shuts down digestion, meaning you’re not breaking down and absorbing nutrients from what you’re eating, leading to deficiencies and cravings. Address your stress level by avoiding sugar and refined foods, getting the right exercise, engaging in whatever works for you to unwind from the pressures of the world: journalling, meditation, yoga, therapy, or just plain not working yourself to death! Having meaningful relationships and a strong social network reduces stress, too.
9. Coffee Drinks, Diet Soda, and Juice. Watch your beverages. Coffee drinks can pack as many as 600-800 calories (with all the sugar and topping junk they put on it), and fruit juice is just plain sugar. Sure, it may have some vitamins, but eat the whole fruit to get the fiber that slows the release of sugar directly into your system. That’s what spikes blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to cravings/hunger and fat storage. And did you know that diet soda can actually cause weight gain? Click here to read more. Drink water, green tea, and herbal teas. Use herbal coffee substitutes like Teeccino or Dandy Blend. Mix with coconut milk. So delicious and actually good for you!
10. Soy. I write a lot about soy. Read my personal experience with soy and fake meat products in the “About Me” section of this site. Most of the processed foods in our food supply contain processed soy isolates or binding/emulsifying agents that can cause hormone and thyroid disruption. If your thyroid isn’t functioning optimally, weight gain (and a host of other problems) occurs. Soy also causes estrogen dominance, which can make weight loss difficult and adversely affect menstrual cycles. Soy also blocks absorption of other nutrients and is very difficult to digest. Avoid soy in all forms (it’s in everything; so once again, eat real food). Exception: Fermented soy, like miso or natto, is ok occasionally.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.