How to Avoid Life’s Big Fat Traps

Sarah Kehoe/Fitness Magazine

It’s been a crazy-busy couple of weeks. You step on the scale one morning and, yikes, you’ve gained five pounds. How the heck did that happen? New research shows that what you weigh isn’t just the result of eating too much and exercising too little; it’s also linked to your feelings, your experiences, even where you live. “Any change in your life circumstances can produce changes in eating and exercise, which leads to weight gain,” says Edward Abramson, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Chico and author of Emotional Eating. Getting married and having kids are obvious triggers for putting on pounds, but there are other, more surprising transition points that can also influence your weight. This guide will see you through them all.

You got a promotion.

The good news: You love your new gig. The bad news: The big job is calling for a wardrobe in a bigger size. Chalk it up to stress, which prompts our bodies to release the hormones glucocorticoids and insulin, which stimulate hunger.

Hectic, tense situations can also spark a cascade of neurochemical reactions in the brain that favor emotional impulses over logical thinking, says Mary Dallman, PhD, professor emerita of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who published a review paper on the topic. That means we ignore the voice that tells us to eat healthily, and we turn to high-calorie comfort foods instead. Thanks to your jam-packed schedule, you may be grabbing unwholesome convenience foods during the day — and then gobbling a ginormous dinner after you flop, exhausted, onto your couch at night.

Outsmart it: Bring a high-protein, produce-rich lunch (turkey-citrus salad, for instance); fiber- and protein-filled snacks (almonds and a peach, or Greek yogurt and berries) and, if need be, dinner, so you’re not forced to visit the vending machine when hunger strikes or chow down like a lumberjack when you get home. The key is to choose foods that are satisfying. Since most of us prefer something warm for dinner, Lauren Slayton, RD, founder of Foodtrainers, a nutrition and weight-loss consulting service in New York City, suggests bringing a meal that’s easily microwaved. Try a sweet potato with spinach and sliced chicken or a frozen vegetable-and-brown-rice bowl.

And make time for exercise. We know, we know, you’re too swamped. But consider this: Working out will make you more energized and productive and help reduce stress, countless studies show. If you don’t have time to hit the gym, squeeze in bursts of activity throughout your day: Go for a brisk 15-minute walk at lunch. Do some turbocharged jumping jacks while you’re photo­copying a memo or waiting for your dinner to cook. In a study, people boosted their metabolism when they did four to six 30-second high-intensity sprints on a stationary bike six times over the course of two weeks. And stand up and walk around for five minutes at least once an hour. Your fat-burning enzymes shut down when you sit too long, according to research. By moving frequently, you keep your major muscles working, which may ward off the negative effects of being sedentary.

Finally, get more sleep. Lack of shut-eye stimulates the production of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. “If you’re stressed and sleep deprived, you’re creating a perfect storm for gaining weight,” says Sherry Pagoto, PhD, assistant professor of preventive and behavioral medicine at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine in Worcester. Turn off the TV and the computer and go to bed a half hour earlier.

You Quit Smoking
Congratulations: You ditched those cigarettes! But now your jeans are feeling snug. Blame it partly on the fact that your system is free of nicotine, a stimulant that sup­presses the appetite. The other culprit: You may have a newfound appreciation of food, says Karen Cropsey, clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In studies, recent quitters often report that food tastes better — probably because they can breathe easier (taste buds are affected by olfactory cells). Former smokers may also start substituting food for cigarettes. That can result in an average weight gain of 10 pounds after about six months, Cropsey says. Giving up alcohol may produce a similar effect: A recent report in the journal Addictive Behaviors found that alcoholics in recovery often have a sweet tooth.

Outsmart it: Skip the fatty foods and concentrate on nutritious choices, like whole-grain pastas, breads, and cereals; vegetables and fruits; lean meat; fish; and dairy. After six months of healthy eating, you’ll generally drop to within a few pounds of your prequitting weight, Cropsey says.

Also, take advantage of your improved lung capacity and energy levels and set new fitness goals. Train for a 10K. Try a new sport, like tennis. Or follow the lead of Christine Stewart, a stay-at-home mom who gave up all alcohol almost a year ago, started a regular program of walking, yoga, and weight lifting, and has lost 35 pounds. To keep herself motivated and successful, Christine puts a sticker on her calendar for each day that she works out. “My goal is to see every square covered by the end of the month,” she says.

Oops, You Were Injured
One minute you’re happily racing down a mountain trail on your bike. The next? Splat! You’re on the ground after hitting a tree root. As you count the weeks that your ankle is in a splint, your bathroom scale is counting the pounds that have crept on since the accident. “Many patients are so focused on the injury, they forget that they need to take care of the rest of their body, too,” says Matthew Buchanan, MD, an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon in Falls Church, Virginia.

It’s hard to predict exactly how much weight you will gain while you’re on the mend, because there are so many complicating factors. But one thing is certain: Your cardiovascular endurance and muscle strength will drop if you don’t do at least some activity.

Outsmart it:
If it’s okay with your doctor, hobble over to the gym or roll out a mat at home and do whatever exercise you can. “That may mean getting on the rowing machine or jogging in the pool,” says Dr. Buchanan, who believes that unless your injury is catastrophic, the best thing you can do for your body is work out.

Don’t be discouraged if you have to take it slower and easier. Shirley Chan, a mom of two and a longtime runner, turned to walking when she partially tore two ligaments in her ankle. “It was hard at first, but I tried to keep things in perspective,” she says. “It wasn’t the level of activity I was accustomed to, but I knew I had to do something in order not to fall too far behind in my fitness goals.” After several months with her leg in a boot, she had gained just three pounds, which she easily worked off by running once she’d recovered fully.

The other benefit of exercise, of course, is the mood boost. As little as 11 minutes of exercise a day improved the mental health and vitality of sedentary people in a Louisiana State University study. “A positive frame of mind will enhance your healing process,” says Martha Peaslee Levine, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and humanities at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “From a mental standpoint, this is one of the most important times in your life to work out.”

You Moved
It wasn’t in the lease, but along with more square footage, you gained poundage. It could be that there are fewer sidewalks near your new home, so you’re walking less. Or maybe a burger joint is now closer to you than the supermarket. In other words, geography can make a big difference in weight. The more places a community has that are conducive to physical activity (bike trails, fitness centers, pools), the more likely college grads are to exercise sufficiently, a 2009 Canadian study found. It’s no surprise, then, that Cassandra Marshall, a television producer, gained more than 10 pounds when she relocated from Brooklyn to Chicago. “I didn’t just move away from my apartment; I also moved away from my favorite yoga studio,” she says. “My hours turned out to be crazy, and fatty, high-cal foods were the most accessible.”

Even if your new neighborhood has a gym, moving can affect your weight. “It may disrupt your social network,” explains Daniel Russell, PhD, professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University in Ames. For instance, you may be moving away from your running buddy. “Part of what motivates you is your friends,” Russell says.

Outsmart it:
Moving is hectic, so even before the van’s loaded up, stake out your new hood to find healthy eating spots, running trails, and gyms. Look for nearby running, walking, or yoga groups so you can meet others who enjoy the same workouts you do, Russell says. Marshall eventually located a Bikram studio nearby and got her body back in six months. “I was much happier, I had more stamina at work — and I could enjoy my life again,” she says.

You Lost Your Job
Being laid off is bad enough, but trying to find work in a tough econ­omy can render you doubly disheartened. This kind of major stressor alters your appetite and eating habits, says Jeffrey Mechanick, MD, an endocrinologist and clinical professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. Even if you would normally choose healthy foods, you’re likely to start wolfing down cookies, candy, and french fries now, physiology professor Dallman says, thanks to the stress hormones glucocorticoids, which have been linked in studies to a higher consumption of fat and sugar.

Not only that, but when you’re depressed you can’t help but engage in a process of rumination, when you repeatedly watch that mental video clip in which you get fired and then wonder, What on earth am I going to do now? says Paul Andrews, postdoctorate fellow at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics in Richmond. Such wallowing seems much more palatable with pound cake.

Outsmart it:
Set aside your plate and pick up a pen and paper and write down what you’re thinking and feeling. “In the long term, this kind of writing therapy gives you greater insight into the situation and can help you resolve it,” Andrews says. For instance, if you were laid off because of restructuring, it allows you to vent your anger. In a study in which newly unemployed subjects wrote about how they felt concerning their job loss, their efforts to find new employment or nothing at all, the group who wrote about their feelings were most likely to be hired in the following months. “Writing down their frustrations and traumas allowed people to better assess their situation, needs, and goals — and they were able to adjust their job search accordingly,” says study coauthor James Pennebaker, PhD, professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin. For the best results, he suggests writing down your deepest thoughts for 15 minutes daily on at least three consecutive days. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling; just get your emotions out. After a few days you’ll feel a sense of closure and renewed energy.

Meanwhile, use some of your free time to exercise. Job seekers report that revving up their fitness routines lifted their spirits, helped them lose weight, lowered their stress levels, and made them feel stronger and more self-confident overall. Working out may also make your brain better able to adapt to new experiences, recent research shows. “Even a little exercise can tame the brain’s anxiety,? says Timothy Church, MD, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.