Hormonal weight gain is one of the main reasons behind the weight gain and weight loss difficulties many women face. It's not just adding a few more pounds around the holidays or lacking self-control. In reality, it's much more complex than that, and it's also more common than you'd think.
According to The Journal of European Eating Disorders Review, 91% of females are unhappy with their bodies (1). And a whopping 88% of women with PCOS (a hormonal imbalance that causes enlarged ovaries and cysts) are overweight or obese, according to a review published by The Journal of Clinical Medicine Insights: Reproductive Health (2).
Now, the question is: Why do women—in particular—struggle the most with bodyweight?Hormonal weight gain affects both men and women, but especially women. And given the fact that our weight can have a massive impact on our general wellbeing, this article will take a closer look at hormonal weight gain while also delving into how to stop hormonal weight gain naturally. We’ll see everything, from dietary tips to lifestyle advice!
The first step to stopping your hormonal weight gain is understanding your body. Women's hormones change throughout their lives, from the age of their first period until menopause and beyond. Our hormones shift on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. However, certain factors, including both external and genetic ones, can disrupt their balance. And while we cannot change our genes—yet—we can control our lifestyles.
Factors such as a poor diet, sedentarism, stress, poor sleep quality, and exposure to toxins and ‘foreign’ estrogens can contribute to hormonal imbalance. But luckily, understanding the underlying causes allows us to take the necessary steps to get back on track. To get started, you can take our 2-minute hormone quiz and understand the causes behind your weight gain, bloating, acne, hot flashes, mood swings, and other hormonal symptoms!
Did you know your body has three hormones that completely control hunger, cravings, and the feeling of satiety? These hormones are leptin, ghrelin, and insulin.
The good news is you can hack your way into a more balanced hormone environment by consuming the foods that get your insulin, leptin, and ghrelin working for you rather than against you. Let's see how you can tame the biological urge to overeat with foods that help you manage your hunger, cravings, and satiety cues while also nourishing your body...
Ghrelin, the "hunger hormone", is secreted by the digestive system and its main function is to regulate appetite (3). You can blame this hormone for the growling of your stomach when you feel hungry, but especially for signalling the brain when it's time to eat.
Ghrelin is produced in the gut and secreted when the stomach is empty. It travels through the bloodstream and affects the hypothalamus, which is a part of the brain responsible for hormone regulation. Then, it signals the brain to seek food. And while its main function is to increase appetite, it can also influence the circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle, reward-seeking behaviour, and carbohydrate metabolism.
Basically, the higher the ghrelin levels, the hungrier we become, and vice versa. So, if you need to drop a few pounds, consider lowering your ghrelin levels. But how?
- Maintain a diet rich in lean proteins by including foods like chicken, fish, seafood, and legumes. Protein not only protects your muscle mass, but it's also harder to digest. Hence, protein not only keeps you satiated for longer (4), but it also adds up to your overall caloric expenditure. This is possible because the digestive system needs to work harder to process proteins when compared to other macronutrients, such as fats and carbohydrates.
- Consume good fats regularly. Good fats are rich in omega 3, and these include fatty fish such as salmon, nuts and seeds, avocados, extra virgin olive oil, full-fat coconut milk, and organic nut butter. Naturally, fats will keep you satiated for hours on end (5).
- Load up on your fibre intake. Fibre not only keeps us fuller for longer, but it has also been shown to be beneficial in hormone regulation (6).
Can you eat for hours and hours and never feel satiated? You can blame it on leptin, the “satiety hormone”. Leptin inhibits hunger and helps us increase the feeling of fullness after eating. However, a leptin imbalance can mean we can eat all we want and still not feel satiated. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to optimise leptin levels:
- Avoid refined carbohydrates, sugars, and even sweeteners, as they can increase insulin levels, which may interfere with leptin production.
- Eat a balanced diet to maintain leptin levels at optimal levels. The ideal diet is high in protein, healthy fats, and fibre but moderate in simple carbohydrates.
- Eat zinc-rich foods, such as spinach, beef, seafood, cocoa, beans, and mushrooms. Studies show that people with leptin deficiency usually also have a zinc deficiency (7).
Craving ice cream, sweets, or cookies? When we eat, our blood glucose levels rise and to lower this blood glucose, our bodies secrete insulin. This hormone is in charge of controlling blood sugar levels. But, what if we eat more than we should? A higher glucose peak occurs, so now our body has to produce more insulin to lower that glucose, and that's how the famous sweet tooth appears.
Luckily, we have a few tricks to control insulin, including limiting your intake of sugar, sweetener, and simple carb (white bread, pasta, bakery goods, sweets, etc.). Another thing you can do is add a portion of protein to all your meals. Protein helps control blood sugar levels (8), so adding a tablespoon of peanut butter, a scoop of protein, or a handful of peanuts to your snacks is never a bad idea.And finally, the last piece of advice to optimise insulin levels is to honour your mealtimes. Avoid skipping meals, and try to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, always around the same time.
As if we didn’t have enough hunger hormones, those are not the only hormones involved in weight gain. As stated in our latest article about hormonal weight gain: “Cortisol, the hormone that regulates how your body responds to stress, can also lead to weight gain, especially around the belly, as it can increase appetite (particularly for sugar-rich foods!) during stressful times”.
So, if you really want to learn how to stop hormonal weight gain, then you need to pay extra attention to this section. Now, reducing stress doesn’t look the same for everyone. But, generally speaking, most people find meditation, yoga, exercising, talking to a friend, taking vacations or going to the park, and reading a book quite relaxing.
Yet, there are a few small tweaks we can start implementing right away that, over time, will have a massive impact on our cortisol levels.
- Change your alarm clock: Cortisol is at its peak when we wake up, so why make it even higher with a horrendous, loud alarm clock? Try the sound of birds chirping or a chill song instead.
- Avoid loud noises: Have you ever been disturbed by your doorbell or a sudden loud mobile call you weren’t expecting? If you are stressed, chances are you have. So instead, try swapping your doorbell’s tune and leave your phone on silent mode.
It’s no news that a good night’s sleep can help you relax, thus reducing cortisol levels. Besides, while we sleep, our brain resets certain functions, including the hormonal function. Several studies (9) have pointed out the impact of sleep on hormones and metabolism, and it’s no wonder that sleep deprivation may play a role in obesity, weight gain, and increased cravings during the day.
A few things you can do to improve sleep are:
- Try to wake up at the same time every day. The same applies to your bedtime.
- Avoid blue lights coming off from all types of screens; instead, wear blue light blocking lenses, turn on night mode on all your devices, or simply wind down with a book.
No one can deny that exercising is excellent for our health. But, sometimes, when done wrong or—especially—when overdone, it can be counterproductive for our hormones. Overexercising, or performing vigorous exercise for long periods can increase cortisol levels and overstimulate the thyroid gland (10). This can eventually lead to some weight gain, since cortisol increases your appetite, especially for fatty, sweet and salty foods. (11)
So, instead, make the most of your workout by trying an all-around approach that includes cardiovascular, elongation, and weight-lifting exercises. This way, you'll be able to train as often as you want and maintain optimal hormone levels by alternating different types of training. And more importantly, don't skip rest days!
Nutritional deficiencies may lead to many health problems, including hormonal imbalances. A diet rich in nutrients can help create a healthy balance of hormones. A few of the key elements in any hormonal balancing diet are a well-balanced protein source and good fats.
However, we have already discussed the macronutrients needed to optimise our hormones in the previous points. Now let's see which vitamins and minerals we cannot miss if we want to maximise our hormonal health.
Steroid hormones, like estrogen, cortisol, and testosterone, are built from enzymes that depend on various nutrients, such as iodine, selenium, vitamin D, and magnesium. If we lack these nutrients, it may increase our risk of hormonal weight gain (12).
Iodine is mainly found in seafood and helps maintain the balance between different types of estrogen and fatty acid metabolism and supports the thyroid function, which controls our metabolism.
Selenium supports a variety of enzymes that regulate estrogen balance, energy metabolism, fertility, immune defence, and especially overall hormone balance. Fish and shellfish are high in selenium.
Vitamin D helps balance all hormones, so vitamin D deficiency may lead to depression. Vitamin D rich foods include milk, salmon, herring, cheese, liver, egg yolks, and fortified foods.
Magnesium is vital for producing steroid hormones, including testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen. Foods rich in magnesium include dark green leafy greens like spinach and kale, pumpkin seeds, nuts, beans, and avocados.
Vitamin B complex deficiency can lead to hormonal imbalance. Vitamin B is found in meats, dairy, eggs, dark leafy greens, chicken, and fish.
Finally, if you really want to learn how to stop hormonal weight gain, the best you can do is consult a doctor. Everybody is different, so to understand what is causing your hormonal weight gain, you must know where it stems from, so you can build a strong foundation to tackle the problem for good. Besides, a doctor is the only person who can properly diagnose your unique condition.
Stopping hormonal weight gain requires patience, effort, as well as many lifestyle and dietary changes. Even when we know what to do, sometimes we can still struggle to get the results we want. In most cases, we're unaware of just how much our hormones can dictate whether we gain or lose weight. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Hormones can determine whether we are satisfied after a meal and how effective we are at absorbing nutrients from our food. They can even rule out whether we get enough sleep, feel energised or fatigued, happy or sad, and so much more!
So, balancing your hormones is much more than simply getting back on track on your weight loss journey; it is all about improving your overall health and how you feel about yourself. Now, what can you do about it?We’ve outlined some of the most common hormonal imbalances symptoms in a comprehensive 5-minute quiz that will point you to the right solutions for your body specifically. Click here to find out how to stop hormonal weight gain and stay healthy for good!