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4 Lesser-Known Causes of Weight Gain and Obesity

September 18, 2023

When you think about achieving a healthy weight, it’s natural to focus on what you eat and how much you’re exercising. But if you’re struggling with weight gain, you may have something else going on too.

Our weight loss expert explains some of the lesser-known causes of weight gain and obesity.

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1. Your medical history, past and present

“Everything from your medication list to hormonal changes can factor into weight gain,” says Taslima Shaikh, MD, who practices in Hartford HealthCare’s Farmington, Southington and Meriden locations, explains.

That includes:

  • Surgery and medical illness, whether because it limits physical activity or brings on general stress
  • Women’s health issues like menopause, pregnancy and new motherhood, which impact your hormones and metabolism
  • Quitting smoking, which slows your metabolism
  • Certain medications, like prednisone and some medications for pain, diabetes, heart conditions, and psychiatric health
  • Underlying conditions, like sleep apnea or endocrine disorders
  • Mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety

> Related: 3 Things to Know if You’re Struggling to Lose Weight

2. Stress, with or without a major life change

On an ancient, cellular level, your body tends to assume famine is just around the corner. So when you’re stressed, your body releases hormones to help it hoard calories. For example, it slows down your metabolism and fires up powerful cravings for sugar, carbs and fats. This leads to weight gain.

What qualifies as a trigger? It’s different for everybody.

“Any major life change can cause weight gain from stress,” says Dr. Shaikh. For instance: divorce or a breakup, the death of a loved one, job change, and major illness or injury. Weight gain can also come from ongoing stress — like financial strain, work pressure, family conflicts and discrimination.

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3. Poor sleep, with or without a condition like sleep apnea

Sleep plays a role in pretty much everything health-related, and weight is no exception. How long and how well you sleep affects the hormones that regulate your metabolism and blood sugar.

Not surprisingly, sleep disorders like sleep apnea are often linked to weight gain. But so are poor sleep habits in general.

“People who sleep less than five hours a night or more than nine hours a night tend to weigh more,” says Dr. Shaikh. “Studies also show that people who sleep just six hours per night are three times likelier to develop metabolic syndrome and diabetes.”

4. Your environment

Maybe you grew up in a community without a lot of healthy food options. Or your work is a series of back-to-back Zoom meetings, which keeps you glued to your chair. Or you can’t afford or find time for a gym or sports club.

If any or all of this is true for you, common sense says you’re more likely to struggle with weight gain. So does research.

“The environments in which we live, as well as cultural norms, play a big role in weight,” says Dr. Shaikh.

What to do about lesser-known causes of weight gain?

Finding the reasons — and the solutions — to your weight gain can be tough to do on your own.

Luckily, you don’t have to.

“The first step is to talk to your healthcare team,” says Dr. Shaikh. “Our goal is to listen to your needs, identify any underlying problems, and explain your options. Together, we can help you achieve a healthy weight.”