How to Beat Hormonal Weight Gain

Why your changing hormones are making you hungrier—and how to keep yourself from gaining weight.

By Louann Brizendine, MD
chocolate cake picture

Donna is wired from the cake, so she has a glass of wine while she continues to watch TV. Several hours later, she wakes up. She’s fallen asleep on the couch. By the time she brushes her teeth and washes her face, she’s wide awake because of alcohol rebound, which occurs two hours after drinking. She gets into bed and resolves to stare at the ceiling until she nods off. Donna has unwittingly set herself up for another day like the one she just had.

Your Hormonal Hunger Chemistry

Hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemical signals circulating among your brain, your fat cells, and your stomach control your urge to eat (and to stop eating). Here, a look at the major players.

LEPTIN is a protein produced by fat cells that tells your brain that you are full.

GHRELIN is a hormone that’s secreted in your stomach. It signals the cells in your brain’s appetite center that you are famished.

DOPAMINE, a neurotransmitter, plays a major role in motivation, addiction, and reward; it may prompt you to keep eating even though you’re not hungry anymore.

CORTISOL, a stress hormone, is produced by the adrenal glands and waxes and wanes throughout the day. When it’s low, it may stimulate hunger.

Three Ways to Work with Your Hormones — Not Against Them

  • Start a diet on the day you start menstruating. During the first two weeks of your cycle, your ovaries are not producing progesterone, which means your brain is not signaling you to eat more food to prepare for a possible pregnancy. These are the perfect two weeks to eat less without feeling deprived.
  • During the two weeks before ovulation (the two weeks after your period), reduce or eliminate sugar and other simple carbs (white bread, pasta, etc.). During the second half of your cycle, increases in your progesterone level stimulate the brain to crave sugars and carbs. So the best time to train your taste buds to say no is before the progesterone spikes.
  • Exercise more during the second two weeks of your menstrual cycle. This will help derail your desire for carbohydrates during the progesterone surge. Keeping your carb intake in check during these 26 weeks of the year can make a significant difference when it comes to weight loss.

Managing Hormonal Weight Gain

Don’t Cut Calories; Redistribute Them To curb your appetite and lift your mood, you want to keep your ghrelin level low and your leptin level high. Eating five small high-protein meals a day will accomplish that. Be sure to eat them at about the same time each day.

By having mini meals every few hours, you also give your body a chance to switch over to the "reserve fat" tank — the fuel stored in fat cells — without feeling as if you’re starving. When you feel just a bit hungry between meals, your body and brain will get fuel from your reserve tank of fat. And because you have to wait only another hour or less before you eat again, you can better resist being seduced by ghrelin’s siren song.

Mix Your Meals Don’t cut complex carbohydrates from your diet. Doing so can actually make you cranky, sad, or even depressed. A carb-free diet also makes you prone to hunger. A better strategy is to pair complex carbohydrates with high-protein foods. Complex carbs (such as high-fiber vegetables) take more time and energy for your body to digest, so they don’t prompt your pancreas to pour out insulin, setting off the vicious cycle that makes your brain crave sugar again.

Don’t Wait to Have Dessert That is, eat dessert right after a meal. If you’ve eaten a dinner of carbs and protein with a little fat, you’ve slowed down your digestion. Protein and fat in your system dampens the insulin impact of a sugary dessert. Dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, will egg you on to eat more. Ask yourself if you’re enjoying this bite as much as the first; when you’re not, stop.

Fill Up on Endorphins Your estrogen output may be sputtering, but you’re still capable of producing plenty of endorphins. When your brain is pumping these out, you’re less likely to fixate on food. Good endorphin releasers: exercise, laughter, and orgasms.

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