Top Ten Hidden Causes of Weight Gain

When it comes to losing weight, the conventional wisdom is to eat less and exercise more. Food and physical activity certainly play important roles in achieving a healthy weight, but there’s much more to it. Body weight is controlled by internal factors like hormones and neurotransmitters as well as external factors like stress and chemicals in the environment. The only way to lose weight permanently is to address all possible underlying causes of weight gain. Here are the top ten to consider.

#1  Low-Calorie and Low-Fat Diets

Diets deficient in calories and/or fat slow our metabolism and actually make it more difficult to lose weight. Dieters feel hungry, weak, and tired as their bodies attempt to conserve energy and their muscles are broken down for fuel. Low-calorie and low-fat diets inhibit the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and cause nutritional deficiencies to develop. The body perceives a state of starvation and responds by raising levels of stress hormones and increasing the storage of fat.

It is possible to lose weight on a starvation diet, but as soon as a normal diet is resumed, the body will compensate by overeating, gaining weight more easily, and losing it more slowly.

To lose weight successfully, avoid sugar, not fat. Eliminate easily digestible carbohydrates like sweets and starches (including grains) from your diet. Fill up instead on green vegetables (make them half of every meal), protein, and healthy fats. Skip snacks and drink only water and unsweetened tea (green, white, red, or herbal).

#2  Too Much Exercise

Moderate exercise promotes weight loss by lowering blood sugar, improving insulin sensitivity, and burning fat. But too much exercise can have the opposite effect. Studies show that high-intensity exercise and prolonged periods of exercise (an hour or more) raise levels of stress hormones like cortisol. High coritsol levels trigger inflammation, make us crave carbohydrates, and cause our bodies to accumulate fat.

During the first twenty minutes or so of exercise, muscles use stored sugar for energy. Once the reserves have been depleted, muscles start burning fat for fuel instead, as long as blood sugar levels are low. If blood sugar levels are high, your muscles will burn sugar instead of fat.

Maximize fat burning during exercise by working out at a moderate intensity for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. Skip carbohydrate-heavy snacks before you workout (to prevent high levels of blood sugar) and include both aerobic and strengthening exercises in your routine. The combination has been proven more effective for fat loss than either exercise alone.

#3  Low Vitamin D

Vitamin D may be best known for its immune and bone building benefits, but it's also a key regulator of fat and metabolism. Observational studies show that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D gain more weight, on average, than people with the highest levels. This doesn't mean that low vitamin D levels cause weight gain, but it does show that low levels of vitamin D can predispose people to gain weight more easily.

Vitamin D can be taken in supplement form but it doesn't have the same effect as sunlight, which stimulates the body’s own production of vitamin D in the skin. Sun exposure sets off several beneficial biochemical pathways in the body (the production of vitamin D is only one) and it helps regulate our circadian rhythm, which also plays a part in regulating fat and metabolism.

To ensure adequate vitamin D, get fifteen to twenty minutes of early morning sunlight each day (avoid intense sun exposure) and take 800 to 1,200 IU of vitamin D3 daily with your doctor’s permission.

#4  Chronic Stress

During times of physical and psychological stress, our adrenal glands increase their production of stress hormones like cortisol. Chronic, unmanaged stress and high levels of cortisol deplete serotonin, raise blood sugar and insulin levels, trigger food cravings, increase fat accumulation, and promote weight gain.

To prevent stress from sabotaging your efforts to lose weight, manage it effectively. There are several strategies, from exercise and deep breathing to yoga  and meditation. Pick what works best for you and practice it regularly.

#5  Lack of Sleep

Like stress, lack of sleep increases levels of cortisol, which promotes the accumulation of fat. Not getting enough sleep also causes an increase in levels of ghrelin, a hormone that makes you hungry, and a decrease in levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite. As a result, we eat more, our cells become less sensitive to insulin, and our bodies continue to accumulate fat. In one study of healthy men, being deprived of just two hours sleep caused them to crave sugar and eat more of it.

If you're trying to lose weight, get plenty of sleep. That means at least eight hours each night in the summer, when nights are naturally shorter, and nine hours or more in the winter, when nights are naturally longer. Sleep in an environment that is quiet, comfortable, cool, and completely dark.

#6  Food Sensitivities

Compounds in foods can cause irritation in people who are sensitive to them. The two most common food sensitivities are cow's milk and gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some oats). Irritation from food sensitivities can trigger inflammation, swelling, and weight gain. In people who are not sensitive, these foods do not cause such problems.

To find out if you have food sensitivities, follow an elimination diet. Avoid possible problem foods completely for at least a month and then re-introduce them one at a time, in their most pure form, and gauge your reaction. Blood tests are available but they aren't always accurate and they don't have the same effect. On an elimination diet, people with food sensitivities often feel better right away and in the end they're more motivated to avoid the foods that cause adverse reactions.

#7  Medications

Several medications can cause weight gain and interfere with weight loss. Culprits include birth control pills, anti-depressants (Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Remeron, Elavil), antipsychotic drugs (Zyprexa), corticosteroids (prednisone), antipsychotic drugs (Thorazine), allergy medications (Allegra), heartburn drugs (Nexium, Prevacid), the seizure medicine Depakote, and diabetes drugs (insulin, Diabinese, Insulase).

If you are overweight and taking medications, ask your doctor about alternatives.

#8  Hormone Imbalances

Hormones in the body work together to regulate weight gain and weight loss. Imbalances in levels of insulin, melatonin, thyroid hormone, cortisol, adrenaline, DHEA, estrogen, and/or testosterone can promote weight gain.

While hormone imbalances promote fat accumulation, fat accumulation promotes hormone imbalances. Because adipose cells convert testosterone to estrogen, excess body fat can raise estrogen levels in both men and women (making weight loss even more difficult). If you have a known or suspected hormonal imbalance, address it with your doctor.

#9  Neurotransmitter Deficiencies

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow cells in the brain to communicate. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that function in parts of the brain controlling mood, appetite, and addictions. When levels of serotonin and dopamine are low, we crave sweet and starchy foods and we’re more likely to binge or overeat. Optimizing levels of serotonin and dopamine can naturally suppress appetite and reduce weight gain.

To restore neurotransmitter balance, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, exposure your skin to 15 minutes of early morning sunshine, and have good sex often. Also consider meditation, which has been shown to boost low levels of dopamine.

#10  Chemicals in the Environment

Chemicals in the environment can cause hormone imbalances that trigger fat accumulation and weight gain. These "endocrine disruptors" include pesticides, added hormones, bisphenyl-A, phthalates, and parabens. They're found in food, water, plastics, and personal products.

To reduce your exposure to these chemicals, eat organic whenever you can. Avoid all meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that were fed grains or exposed to pesticides, herbicides, or hormones. Avoid eating food from cans unless they’re BPA-free and never heat or store foods or beverages in plastic containers. Use personal products free of phthalates and parabens. Research the ones you already use and find safer alternatives if need be on EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.

And at least once or twice each year, undertake a detoxification program prescribed by your naturopathic doctor and tailored to meet your individual needs and goals. 

Learn more about detoxification in my upcoming book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Cravings. It will be published this fall and released on January 1st of 2014.


Alonso-Magdalena P. et al. 2010. Bisphenol-A: a new diabetogenic factor? Hormones (Athens) 9(2):118-26.

Chen J.Q. et al. 2009. Regulation of energy metabolism pathways by estrogens and estrogenic chemicals and potential implications in obesity associated with increased exposure to endocrine disruptors. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 1793(7):1128-43.

Godfrey K.M. et al. 2011. The long-term effects of prenatal development on growth and metabolism. Seminars in Reproductive Medicine 29(3):257-65.

Golden S.H. 2007. A review of the evidence for a neuroendocrine link between stress, depression and diabetes mellitus. Current Diabetes Reviews 3(4):252-9.

 Jacks D.E. et al. 2002. Effect of exercise at three exercise intensities on salivary cortisol. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 16(2): 286-289.

Janesick A. and Blumberg B. 2012. Obesogens, stem cells and the developmental programming of obesity. International Journal of Andrology 35(3):437-48.

Kjaer T.W. et al. 2002. Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Brain Research, Cognitive Brain Research 13(2):255-9.

Knutson K.L. and Van Cauter E. 2008. Associations between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity and diabetes. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1129:287-304.

Leblanc E.S. et al. 2012. Associations between 25-hydroxyvitamin d and weight gain in elderly women. Journal of Women's Health 21(10):1066-73.

Munhoz C.D. et al. 2008. Stress-induced neuroinflammation: mechanisms and new pharmacological targets. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research 41(12):1037-46.

Simon N. Young. 2007. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience 32(6): 394–399.

Suzuki K. et al. 2012. [The impact of sleep disturbances on neuroendocrine and autonomic functions]. [Article in Japanese]. Nihon Rinsho. Japanese Journal of Clinical Medicine 70(7):1169-76.

Thayer K.A. et al. 2012. Role of Environmental Chemicals in Diabetes and Obesity: A National Toxicology Program Workshop Review. Environmental Health Perspectives 120(6): 779–789.

Van Cauter E. et al. 2007. Impact of sleep and sleep loss on neuroendocrine and metabolic function. Hormone Research 67 Suppl 1:2-9.

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All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking from Molly Stevens truly is a "treasury of one-pot meals." A great companion to her other book, All About Roasting, which details cooking with dry heat, All About Braising covers cooking with moist heat.

Done properly, braising is an excellent way to produce delicious and succulent meals with inexpensive cuts of meat and relatively little effort. Stevens explains why braised foods are so remarkably tender and how to achieve impressive results with even the toughest cuts of meat and the least liked vegetables. (Even haters won't be able to resist her recipe for Creamy Braised Brussels Sprouts on page 65.) She discusses the difference between short braising and long braising, the best foods for each technique, and the importance of picking the right pot for the job.

In All About Braising, Stevens' recipes for healthy comfort foods span the basics like short ribs and brisket, classics like coq au vin and osso bucco, special occasion dishes like Cornish game hens and lamb shanks, and even exotic meals like rabbit ragu and quail braised with grapes. I'm looking forward to making Salmon Fillets Braised in Pinot Noir with Bacon and Mushrooms (page 107), Caribbean Pork Shoulder (page 354), and Duck Legs Braised in Port and Dried Cherries (page 199).

This book isn't only for carnivores. Stevens offers plenty of recipes starring vegetables as the main ingredient, from stuffed eggplant and braised cauliflower to cabbage gratin and shallot confit. She also includes often over-looked choices like celery, radishes, and fennel, which lend themselves quite well to braising. For a flavorful and filling vegetarian main course, try her recipe for Escarole Braised with Cannellini Beans (page 53).

Buy this book now, while temperatures are still chilly and slow-cooked meals are what you crave.

Top Ten Health Benefits of Sex

Pleasurable sexual activity, either alone or with a partner, is good for you. Sex and especially orgasm triggers the release of hormones and endorphins that act as natural pain killers and feel-good chemicals. Thanks to this biochemical cascade and the physiological mechanisms involved, sex has several health benefits. Here are the highlights: 

#1  Heart Health

Sex improves heart health. Like other forms of aerobic exercise, it increases heart rate, pulse, and circulation, which gives the blood vessels that support your heart a good workout, regardless of how many calories you burn. Studies show that having sex can lower high blood pressure and when practiced at least twice a week, it can cut the risk of dying from a heart attack in half. Research has also demonstrated that sexual activity does not increase the risk of stroke.

#2  Improved Immunity

Regular sex can boost immunity and help prevent upper respiratory infections. Sexual activity increases levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A which defends against cold and flu viruses. Researchers found a 30 percent increase in IgA among people who had sex once or twice each week.

#3  Better Fat Metabolism

Sex balances hormones and normalizes neurotransmitters that reduce food cravings and regulate fat metabolism.

#4  Good Sleep

Good sex promotes good sleep, thanks to the hormone oxytocin.

#5  Anti-Aging Effects

Sex triggers the release of DHEA, estrogen, and testosterone. These hormones help maintain healthy skin texture, bone density, lean muscle mass, libido, and erectile function, especially in older adults. A study in Scotland found that people who had regular sex (4 times per week, on average) looked 7 to 12 years younger than their biological age.

#6  Less Pain Perception

Sex reduces the perception of pain. One study found that orgasm relieved migraine pain in half of women sufferers.

#7  Stress Relief

Sex helps relieve stress and people who have sex regularly report a better ability to cope with stress.

#8  Prostate Protection

Frequent sex can reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men. One study found that men who ejaculated 21 times or more each month when they were younger (in their 20s) had a significantly lower risk of developing prostate cancer when they were older, compared to men who reported only 4 to 7 ejaculations per month.

#9  Less Incontinence

Regular sex strengthens pelvic floor muscles and can reduce the risk of incontinence in women.

#10  Emotional Health

Sex can relieve anxiety and depression. It can also boost self esteem, promote intimacy, and facilitate bonding with your partner. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that couples who had frequent sex were happier than couples who didn't. Researchers determined the happiness factor was equivalent to earning an extra $100,000 per year. 


Bartz J.A., Zaki J., Bolger N., and Ochsner K.N. 2011. Social effects of oxytocin in humans: context and person matter. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15(7):301-9.

Blanchflower D.G. and Oswald A.J. 2004. "Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study," Scandinavian Journal of Economics 106(3):393-415.

Charnetski C.J. and Brennan F.X. 1999. THe effect of sexual behavior on immune system function. Paper presented at the Eastern Psychological Association Convention, Providence, RI, April 1999.

Ebrahim S., May M., Ben S., McCarron P., Frankel S., Yarnell J., and Davey S.. 2002. Sexual intercourse and risk of ischaemic stroke and coronary heart disease: the Caerphilly study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2002. 56(2): 99–102.

Evans R.W. and Couch R. 2001. Orgasm and migraine. Headache 41(5):512-4.

Leitzmann M.F., Platz E.A., Stampfer M.J., Willett W.C., and Giovannucci E. Ejaculation frequency and subsequent risk of prostate cancer. 2004. Journal of the American Medical Association 291(13):1578-86.

Concerns About Flu Shots

Flu season isn't over yet and the flu shot is still being promoted even though it's only 56 percent effective against flu viruses (9 percent effective in adults 65 years and older) and not at all effective against cold viruses. Getting the vaccine doesn't mean that you won't get sick.

According to a review of 50 flu shot studies done by the Cochrane Collaboration, an independent and not-for-profit research organization internationally recognized for its evidence-based standards, 100 flu shots would have to be given to avoid a single case of the flu. The review also reported adverse effects including a rare but serious disorder called Guillian-Barré syndrome which occurs when the body's immune system attacks the nerves and paralyzes the body.

Cochrane researchers found "no evidence" that flu shots reduce the transmission of flu viruses from person to person or prevent complications like pneumonia. They also concluded find that studies funded by flu shot manufacturers were much more likely to report positive results than publicly funded studies and, despite "evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions," the positive studies were more widely published than the negative ones.

In addition to the poor track record, growing concern that the over-use of flu shots is contributing to the increasing resistance of viruses, and worry over the effects of immunizations in general (including reports that vaccinated children are five times more likely to develop disease than unvaccinated children), other serious concerns exist.

Flu shots have a high rate of side effects, they contain antibiotics, and most of them (about 80%) contain a mercury-based preservative called thimersol. According to the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) from Eli Lilly and Company and Science Lab, thimersol may be toxic to the kidneys, liver, lungs, spleen, bone marrow, central nervous system, digestive system, and reproductive system, causing miscarriage and birth defects including "mild to severe mental retardation and mild to severe motor coordination impairment." The MSDS also warn that thimersol causes allergic reactions, "alters genetic material," and "may cause cancer."

A new thimersol-free flu vaccine called Flublok, recently approved by the FDA, is made from genetically engineered or "recombinant" ingredients. It's mercury-free but genetically modified. This probably isn't better, given the lack of long-term testing and the concerns that have cropped up over adding genetically modified foods to our diet.

An estimated 70% of processed foods already contain GM ingredients and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine reports that "several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food consumption including infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, and protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system."

The take-home message on flu shots is this:

We're all exposed to flu viruses but we don't all get sick. The biggest differences between those who do and those who don't isn't whether or not they've had the flu shot, it's their overall health and the strength of their immune systems.

The best way to prevent the flu is to eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, manage stress effectively, and address any underlying health problems. In addition, supplements can ensure that your body is getting all of the nutrients it needs to maintain a strong immune system. Ask your naturopathic doctor for individualized recommendations.